Coups in the Kremlin
What the History of Russia’s Power Struggles Says About Putin’s Future
One feels a bit embarrassed after reading “To Russia With Love” (April 3, 2020), by John O’Loughlin, Gerard Toal, and Kristin Bakke. The authors claim to have measured the public sentiments of Crimeans and found that the majority of the population feels happy about life under Russian occupation. The article invokes the vocabulary of modern democratic politics: polls, referendums, and surveys.
But there are several fundamental problems with measuring popular opinion during an illegal occupation. There is no free environment in Crimea in which one can express political views, especially if those views contradict the Kremlin’s line. Moreover, the people of Crimea have spent more than six years under a heavy barrage of Russian TV propaganda without easy access to alternative sources. To highlight the alleged happiness of some as others in Crimea are abducted, imprisoned, or murdered hardly seems ethical. There are people in North Korea who would sincerely report their happiness if asked. But do their sentiments describe the reality of human rights abuses in their country?
To poll Crimeans about their happiness is cynical. Many “unhappy” Crimeans will either be wary of participating in such a survey or physically unable to do so, having been imprisoned or killed.
One unhappy man, the activist Reshat Ametov, was stabbed in the eye and killed in March 2014. Another unhappy man, the director and screenwriter Oleg Sentsov, was arrested and tried on fraudulent charges. He then had to survive a hunger strike in a Russian high-security prison in the Arctic Circle. Russian authorities banned the unhappy Crimean Tatars from convening the Mejlis, their historic self-governing body, in their homeland. Yes, those same Crimean Tatars who were deported by Stalin in a 1944 genocide now must live through their second national catastrophe in less than a century, thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia favors the “right” Crimeans and pushes out the “wrong” ones, as it has shown by making Crimea the latest of several border territories where non-Russian citizens, persons without citizenship, and foreign entities cannot own land. Those terms of ownership will help the Kremlin further transform Crimean demographics and improve the level of “official” happiness there. Such discrimination is just the latest of Russia’s brutal violations of Ukrainian legislation and international humanitarian law over the last six years.
Occupied Crimea has become a black hole for human rights.
By every account, occupied Crimea has become a black hole for human rights. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reports grave human rights violations, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, mistreatment of prisoners, torture, and extrajudicial executions in Crimea. The UN General Assembly, in resolutions passed in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, recognizes the overall deterioration of the human rights situation on the peninsula. The resolutions emphasize that, despite the calls of the international community, Russia continues to blatantly violate its obligations as an occupying power. It holds at least 100 political prisoners in Crimea. On an almost daily basis, disturbing accounts emerge from the region of searches, intimidation, and limitations on the freedoms of movement, speech, assembly, and religion.
The Crimean Tatars are the peninsula’s most vulnerable group. They constitute the vast majority of political prisoners. Russia continues to outlaw the Mejlis, ignoring an order from the International Court of Justice that urged the Kremlin to lift the ban. Russian agents constantly pressure human rights activists, lawyers, and all those who support the politically persecuted Crimeans. Tens of thousands of Crimeans fled after Russia occupied the peninsula. Independent media and journalists were all squeezed out, too.
This brings us to another problem that makes the article “To Russia With Love” even more confusing. Who was actually surveyed by the researchers?
In a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, the Kremlin has been conducting a deliberate and intensive migration policy aimed at shifting Crimean demographics. At least 140,000 to 300,000 Russian citizens have moved into Crimea during the years of occupation. How many of these “new Crimeans” were interviewed and included in the sample of the survey? At the same time, were any Crimean Tatars who had to flee to mainland Ukraine given the chance to speak?
International law forbids holding referendums under occupation.
It is even more confusing to see the authors call Putin’s “referendum” in Crimea far from ideal and then jump to the conclusion that “it is incontrovertible” that most Crimean residents “welcomed joining Russia.”
International law forbids holding referendums under occupation, not only for the sake of respecting the inviolability of the territorial integrity of states but also because any referendum conducted without guaranteed democratic standards will not demonstrate the real feelings of the population.
To make a long story short, I recommend taking with a pinch of salt any attempts to provide a fresh view on what happened in Crimea in 2014 and its aftermath. If one allows this kind of revisionism, Ukraine will lose a chance to regain its territorial integrity, and the international community as a whole will lose a chance to achieve justice and respect for international law and human rights.
We have conducted public opinion research in contested post-Soviet territories for more than 15 years and are all too familiar with the political sensitivity of such work. We recognize, of course, that the circumstances of Crimea’s annexation were different from those that created breakaway territories in Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. But our goal in all these regions has been to gauge the views of ordinary people, using independent research companies that employ robust social scientific methods. The results tend to show that public attitudes within contested territories differ significantly from the prevailing views in the parent states. Our findings in Crimea are in keeping with that pattern. Democratic societies are stronger when they recognize the merits of scientific research, no matter how inconvenient the truths the research may reveal.