Odessa, Ukraine—Almost all of the proposals for resolving the current crisis between Russian and Ukraine overlook one of the central actors—the residents of the Crimean peninsula. The dominant media narrative seems to be that it was Russian intervention that created the problem of Crimean separatism in the first place, so, if Russian troops are removed, everything will soon return to normal.
This is wishful thinking. In fact, as the research done by University of Ottawa professor Ivan Katchanovski shows, resentment against the central government in Kiev has been on the rise in Crimea since the 2004 Orange revolution. If, in 1996 and 2001, only half of Crimean residents supported rejoining Russia, by 2008 a survey by the Kiev based Razumkov Center showed that, among those who had made up their mind on the issue, 73 percent backed secession from Ukraine with a goal of joining Russia. When given additional options, 47 percent said they favored Crimea becoming an independent state, while 6 percent wanted to join Turkey.
It is especially interesting to note that in that survey 65 percent of ethnic Ukrainians said they too wished to join Russia. Only Crimean Tatars, about 12 percent of the population, were predominantly against joining Russia, preferring their own national autonomy within Ukraine. It is therefore no surprise that in the latest poll, taken by the Crimean Republic’s Institute for Political and Sociological Research, 85 percent say they plan to take part in the referendum, and 77 percent say they will vote to join the Russian Federation.
The impartiality of research sponsored by the Crimean government might well be questioned, but its basic conclusions are confirmed even by ardent Ukrainian nationalists, like Lviv based journalist Ostap Drozdov. He calls Crimea “a fifth column in Ukraine,” but candidly admits that any legitimate referendum held in Crimea (certainly not the current one) would end up benefiting Putin. His disturbing conclusion: “by fighting to keep Crimea within Ukraine, we are fighting for the presence of potential traitors. And they won’t be going anywhere after Ukraine successfully deals with the current nightmare. The nightmare will have only begun…whatever the results of this conflict, Ukraine will have won no prize. On the contrary, we will have preserved a peninsula which will paralyze any movement forward.”
Thus, while by any account Crimea’s legal basis for holding a referendum is weak, that is largely beside the point. Moscow’s military actions may have emboldened the Crimean parliament to take a stand against Kiev now, but the inconvenient truth is that many Crimeans, both Russians and Ukrainians, have not felt comfortable in Ukraine for some time. The violence they witnessed on the Maidan, the peremptory removal of president Yanukovych, and the abrupt imposition of a new constitution have only hardened their views. It is worth recalling that when, on February 27, the Crimean parliament first decided to hold a referendum on expanding regional autonomy, it was exclusively within the context of remaining in Ukraine. It was Kiev’s ham-fisted attempt to replace key regional officials after agreeing not to do so that led to the inclusion of a second option to join Russia. Leaving Ukraine was placed on the table because the threat of force against Crimea was not taken off the table.