In Russia, Ukraine

By Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, September 10, 2023

An essay by Graeme Gill published in the Australian journal Pearls and Irritations on August 10 helps rebut the falsehoods about Crimea’s recent history that are repeated endlessly in Western countries by corporate media and even many alternative media. Several points in the essay merit further discussion and clarification of facts. The following is a lengthy essay dedicated to just that.

2014 map of Crimea

The progressive, online foreign policy journal Pearls And Irritations in Australia published a commentary on August 10 on the recent history of Crimea. ‘Crimea and conundrums’ by writer Graeme Gill was published on August 10, 2023. It addresses two earlier exchanges on Crimea published by P&I in July and August 2023. Gill’s commentary rebuts one of those earlier exchanges and welcomes the other while adding his own informed analysis.

The first exchange, by David Higginbottom, appeared on July 21 and argued that there is widespread acceptance of Russian rule in Crimea by its people. He traveled to Crimea and reported from there in April 2018.

The second exchange, by Jon Richardson, appeared on August 3 and sharply critiqued Higginbottom, arguing that any expression of a pro-Russian majority on the Crimean peninsula is a result of the influx of ethnic Russians beginning 75 years ago following the wartime deportation from Crimea in 1944 of the Tatar population, carried out by the government of the Soviet Union in the name of wartime defense.

Rehashing a falsified and discredited history

Jon Richardson calls the referendum of March 16, 2014, in which a large majority of Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine and join the Russia Federation, a “sham referendum held only three weeks after the invasion”. The “invasion” to which the writer refers is code language for Russia’s decision to defend the Crimean people from neo-Nazi paramilitaries threatening to invade the region from Ukraine. Thay decision was made during the weeks following the violent, paramilitary coup in Kiev that installed an illegal and unconstitutional far-right government on February 20/21, 2014. The coup and threats following it of far-right, paramilitary intervention into Ukraine by the coupmakers prompted the government of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea to hold the referendum to decide the political future of the peninsula. It appealed to the Russian government to assist in ensuring the vote could be held safely.

Russian soldiers in Crimea at the time did not “invade”, as Richardson claims. They were there by virtue of a 1997 treaty between the Russian Federation and Ukraine which recognized a continued military presence in Crimea for Russia in and around the city of Sevastopol where Russia’s historic naval base was located. Yes, February and March 2014 became extraordinary and unforeseen times in Crimea, demanding extraordinary measures to protect the safety of the population. This was hardly the fault of Russia; it was one of the deadly consequences of the coup in Kiev. Russian soldiers were the only guarantors at the time able to prevent a neo-Nazi bloodbath from taking place in Crimea as it had already taken place in Kiev on February 20/21 and then spread to the rest of Ukraine.

To the credit of the Russian government, it decided to resolutely defend the right of Crimeans to freely choose their future. This was no small promise. It was made in life-or-death circumstances which Richardson entirely ignores, including threats by the NATO powers of serious economic consequences for Russia if a referendum vote proceeded. Russia endured near-universal condemnation in the West for its action. Most seriously, its defense of the Crimean people was quickly used by the West as justification for undertaking a vast program of economic sanctions against Russia which continues to this day.

Richardson argues an extreme viewpoint which compromises his credibility on the subject. He calls the Crimean Tatars the “native/indigenous people of the peninsula”. But they are not. The peninsula has been a meeting point and to some degree a melting pot of different peoples since time immemorial. The Crimean Tatars are one of many such peoples. Their presence in Crimea is certainly significant historically, but they are far from being original inhabitants. Grame Gill documents key points in this history in his rebuttal to Richardson.

Richardson also writes that “the 2014 annexation of Crimea differed little from Hitler’s 1938 takeover of the Sudetenland”. It is nonsensical to make any such equivalency. It is an insult to all those who suffered at the hands of Nazi Germany. Hitler’s move at the time was one of the steps by Nazi Germany towards launching a second catastrophic world war, this one much worse than the previous world war only 20 years earlier. By contrast, the loss of life in Crimea in March 2014 was negligible.

Setting the record straight

David Higginbottom helped set the record straight in his July essay. In it, he explained that he had visited Crimea in 2018 and observed at the time that “Crimea was bustling and seemed relatively prosperous.”

“I travelled throughout the south-eastern side of the peninsula (Simferopol, Yalta, Sevastopol),” he continued. “Crimea is very beautiful. I was not aware of any tension–in fact, everything was very peaceful. This was not an oppressed population. Families were strolling through parks, buying ice-creams or sitting outside cafes drinking coffee – just like anywhere else.”

Crimeans celebrate in Lenin Square in the capital city Simferopol following the March 15, 2014 vote to rejoin Russia

He explained further, “The major issue was the economic sanctions [by the Western powers]. These made banking difficult and banks were forced to close due to sanctions.  When new ones opened, they were not connected to the international banking system, credit cards no longer worked, trade was disrupted if not impossible, the tourist industry was devastated, and the economy was initially crippled.”

His essay goes on to list further evidence of the acceptance of the Crimean people of their 2014 decision.

‘Crimea conundrums’

Graeme Gill’s essay makes important criticism of the essay by Richardson. But it also contains inaccuracies that should be noted and understood.

Gill begins by writing that Richardson “makes many valuable points” in discussing Crimea. But any value in Richardson’s points is not at all evident and not explained. Gill goes on to describe various polls taken in Crimea since 2014 revealing strong public attitudes in favour of joining the Russian Federation.

Gill’s recounting of events surrounding 2014 fails to explain the decisive turning point that changed everything for the peninsula, which was the violent coup in Kiev. Upon seizing power, the coupmakers immediately vowed to take their anti-Russia coup and their anti-Russia violence to Crimea, which was correctly viewed as a bulwark against all that the coup represented. Specifically, they swore to abolish Crimea’s hard-fought and hard-won autonomy within Ukraine, revived from the World War Two era and from the early Soviet Union before that.

In 1954, the government of the Soviet Union made a unilateral decision to take Crimea out of the Russian Soviet Republic and attach it to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic (each being constituent republics of the Soviet Union). Following the 1991 secession of Ukraine from the Soviet Union, Crimeans successfully fought to regain some of the autonomy which was theirs during earlier decades of Soviet rule, beginning in 1921 and then renewed in post-Soviet Ukraine some 70 years later.

Crimea’s autonomy within Ukraine was fully constitutional, no less. It was the only part of post-Soviet Ukraine to have autonomous powers. Otherwise, the new country was founded with a highly centralized government located in Kiev and it possessed nothing resembling, for example, the powers of states in the United States or provinces in Canada. It was the legal and constitutional government of Crimea–the ‘Autonomous Republic of Crimea’, as it was called under Ukraine–that conducted the 2014 referendum.

Gill then writes a highly debatable paragraph containing two contradictory claims. One sentence reads, “There are good grounds for viewing this result [of the 2014 referendum] with considerable scepticism given the domestic situation in Crimea, including the considerable pressure applied for a positive result by Russian forces.” He provides no evidence for his claimed ‘good grounds’. He fails to mention that while the blood began to flow throughout Ukraine following the coup in Kiev, Crimea remained remarkably peaceful.

Ukraine quickly descended into civil war as the new regime in Kiev launched a low-intensity war in March-April 2014 against the people of the historic Donbass region (the two territories of Donetsk and Lugansk). That war lasted eight years, killing many thousands, mostly on the side of the soon-to-become the Donbass republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. According to many accounts at the time, in early 2022, Ukraine and its Western backers were preparing an escalation of that war. That escalation was stopped in its tracks by Russia’s military operation in Ukraine begun on February 24, 2022.

It was not ‘pressure’ by Russian forces that caused the high ‘yes’ vote in the 2014 referendum, as Gill writes. Rather, it was deadly threats by Ukrainian paramilitaries and their Western backers that greatly shaped the outcome. Recall that Crimeans more than most people on earth know the atrocities that far-right paramilitaries and far-right governments are capable of perpetrating. The Nazi German occupation of the peninsula from 1941 until its final expulsion of in May 1944 was one of the deadliest chapters of World War Two (what Russian, Soviet and other people call the ‘Great Patriotic War’. (See this Wikipedia entry on the subject.)

Gill follows his scepticism claim with a second claim explaining, “However, a series of polls taken after the referendum by reputable polling companies – Gallup, Pew Centre, and Levada Centre – all showed overwhelming support for the decision to join Russia.” Precisely. Why, then, the ‘scepticism’ mentioned in his first claim? (The reader can review some of the post-referendum polling in the Wikipedia entry on the subject; see the section ‘Post referendum polls‘.)

Gill devotes a valuable paragraph to explaining the history of Crimean Tatars on the peninsula. He explains they are far from ‘original inhabitants’, as posited by Jon Richardson. He also, importantly, reminds the reader that Crimean Tatars were victims of an historical “dispossession” in 1944 when, in the name of military defense, the Soviet government in Moscow ordered their deportation en masse because they were considered unreliable in the face of the Nazi German atrocities being waged against the Soviet people as a whole. But Gill leaves out a vital part of the present-day story of Crimea, one which goes a long way to explaining why referendum vote was so high in favour of joining the Russian Federation. It is the following.

No formal language rights and dilapidated economy under Ukraine

The first and thus far only national census of post-Soviet Ukraine took place in 2001. Various reports of that census showed a population of Crimea of some 2.3 million, of whom ethnic Russians were 58 per cent, Ukrainians 24 per cent and Crimean Tatars 12 per cent. The census recorded 125 nationalities and ethnic groups living on the territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. (See footnote #1 below for population figures of Crimea in 2019.)

In post-Soviet Ukraine, there was only one official language, including in Crimea, and it was Ukrainian. But Russian language speakers enjoyed favorable language rights flowing from the history and demography of the country. Russian was the de facto first language of much of Ukraine. Visitors to Kiev and other major Ukrainian cities prior to 2014 could easily testify to this. Yet the legal and constitutional status of the language was only semi-official, and that would be lost to new laws after 2014 which greatly restricted use of the language in government services and outright banned its use in schools and media.

The language status for Crimean Tatars during Ukraine was, quite simply, bad all around. The language had no official status, and therefore funding for its expression and its use in education, media and culture al expression was very low. Furthermore, the dilapidated and deteriorating state of the Ukrainian economy during the years of Ukrainian rule only amplified the social and political alienation of Crimean Tatars, who were the poorest of the poor.[2]

One of the first acts of the Crimean government following the 2014 referendum was to declare three official languages—Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar. This had been long demanded by the Russian and Tatar populations, ever since Ukraine’s 1991 secession from the Soviet Union. This act was much more than a gesture. Considerable funds and efforts have been allocated in the years since 2014 to promote and develop media and cultural outlets in the Tatar language as well as improve public education in Tatar.

A second piece of this story is the official apology delivered by President Vladimir Putin to the Crimean Tatar people in April 2014. On April 21, 2014, he explained the apology live on national media, saying, “I have signed a decree to rehabilitate the Crimean Tatar population, the Armenian population, Germans, Greeks – all those who suffered (in Crimea) during Stalin’s repressions.”

Several days earlier, Putin told an all-Russia, open-line radio dialogue, “Crimean Tatars suffered some serious damage during the Stalinist reprisals and were deported from Crimea, which is their traditional place of residence, their home. We certainly need to do everything we can to rehabilitate and restore the legitimate rights and interests of the Crimean Tatar people at a time when Crimea is joining the Russian Federation.”

Crimea referendums

Graeme Gill devotes a long paragraph to the turbulent years of the early 1990s when Ukraine seceded from the Soviet Union. He cites the December 1991 referendum in Ukraine where the country voted for what was called “independence”, that is, secession from the Soviet Union. The vote in favour was strongly supported in central and western Ukraine, but not at all in Crimea or eastern Ukraine. The country voted 92 per cent in favour, but Crimeans voted only 54 per cent in favour, with a low voter turnout. Voter turnout for the country as a whole was 84 per cent.

Gill neglects to mention a key, earlier referendum that took place in Ukraine, this one in March 1991. It asked if voters wished to remain part of a renewed alliance of soviet governments, including Russia, for which a new constitution (‘union treaty’ as it was called) would be negotiated. Voters were asked, ‘Do you agree that Ukraine should be part of a Union of Soviet Sovereign States on the basis on the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine?’ [In 1990, many of the large republics of the Soviet Union, including those of Russia and Ukraine, voted in favour of ‘declarations of state sovereignty’, that is, to become ‘independent’ within the structures of a renewed soviet union.] No less than 82 per cent of Ukrainians voted in favour in March 1991! So what happened? Well, the strongly felt wishes as expressed in the referendum were simply ignored by the governments of the day in Ukrainian and Russian republics. Both were still, nominally, ‘Soviet’ governments, but their leaders were embarked on an ‘independence’, that is, dismantling of the socialist, Soviet order and creation of new, capitalist republics.

To further complicate the story, Crimeans had voted in their own referendum two months earlier (also unmentioned by Grame Gill), in January 1991. They were asked whether they wanted to re-establish the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, which, as mentioned earlier, was originally founded in 1921 as part of the self-determination policies of the early Soviet Union under Lenin. The Stalin-led Soviet Union later abolished the autonomous Crimean republic, in 1945. The January 1991 proposal was approved by 94% of voters! This vote, too, was ignored by the Ukrainian and Russian governments of the day.

So with all this in mind, a clearer picture of the ‘independence referendum’ of December 1991 in Ukraine and Crimea emerges. This vote, as explained above, followed two previous referendum efforts to form an autonomous, soviet Ukraine and a renewed soviet union, both of which results were ignored or sabotaged by Kiev and Moscow. It’s a wonder that as many of 54 per cent of Crimeans even bothered to vote in December 1991, having seen the results of two previous votes during the preceding year treated this way.

On May 5, 1992, the Crimean Supreme Council declared independence for Crimea, dependent on a referendum that was planned for August of that year. But the Ukrainian Rada (legislature) ruled that declaration illegal and gave the Supreme Council a deadline of May 20 to rescind it. The post-Soviet Russian republic under its president Boris Yeltsin backed the Ukrainian threat. The Supreme Council complied with the Ukrainian threat on May 22.

Surprisingly, the story does not quite end there. A Crimea autonomy referendum did eventually take place, on March 27, 1994. Seventy-eight per cent of Crimeans voted for autonomy. This was again refused by Kiev, and the refusal was again backed by the Yeltsin-led government in Moscow.

Economic and social progress in post-2014 Crimea

The greatest factor of all in the high levels of satisfaction in Crimea with the 2014 referendum has been the successful economic and social progress of the peninsula. It is considerable. New industry has been created. In 2016, a gas pipeline from Russia nearly 400 m long was completed, crossing the Kerch Strait. In turn, this allowed for much expansion of electricity generation. In 2019, the Kerch Bridge, connecting the peninsula to Russia’s Rostov regionby  road and rail, was opened to traffic.

Map showing North Crimea Canal, built by the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s

Agriculture has begun to flourish after Ukraine’s blockade of water supply to Crimea was lifted early during Russia’s military operation. Yes, Ukraine had blocked the water supply to Crimea beginning in 2014, to the deafening sound of silence by Western governments and Western ‘human rights’ agencies. Wikipedia explains, “A 2015 study found that the North Crimea Canal [built in stages during the late 1950s and 1960s] had been providing 85% of Crimea’s water prior to the 2014 shutdown. Of the water from the canal, 72% went to agriculture and 10% to industry, while water for drinking and other public uses made up 18%.”

The Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported in March 2022 that the average per capita income in Crimea was 7,425 rubles in 2013; by 2021, it was 25,953 rubles. (The Russian daily Kommersant reported in 2019 that the average salary in Crimea in December 2018 was 36,027 rubles.) It also reported a boom in housing construction.

Construction of new roads, health care facilities, child care centers, and sports and cultural complexes is accelerating. Tourism is also booming, to the point where road travellers from the Russian mainland are complaining that hotel facilities along the route to and from Crimea are full to bursting.

Moskovskij Komsomolets newspaper reported, also in March 2022 the following economic indicators:

  • More than 9,200 new apartments were built in Crimea during the previous year.
  • No resources are now needed to build desalinization plants on the peninsula thanks to the reopening by the Russian military of the North Crimea Canal in March 2022.
  • Since 2014, more than 30 billion rubles (US$307 million) have been allocated for the modernization of medical institutions in Crimea. Free medical care has become available for Crimeans, a nice “surprise” to many of them.
  • Since 2014, more than 30,000 child care places have been created and many new schools have been built.
  • Simferopol airport served served 1.3 million passengers in 2013; in 2021, it served 6.8 million. e.
  • The new, four-lane Tavrida Highway across northern Crimea has cut in half, to two hours, the time to drive from Kerch to Simferopol.
  • In 2013, 5.9 million tourists visited Crimea. By 2016, the total number of visitors was still lingering, at 5.57 million tourists. A tourist visitor record was reached in 2018 with 6.8 million tourists; in 2012, it reached 9.5 million visitors
  • Currently, 24 waste water treatment plants are being built and by the end of 2024, full treatment of sewage should be reached.
  • The cost of all this work and more is estimated at 50 billion rubles (US$700 million) under the state program of the Russian Federation ‘Socio-economic development of Crimea and Sevastopol.’

A new, Western-supervised referendum in Crimea?

Graeme Gill closes his informative essay on an unfortunate note. He writes, “Final resolution of the Crimea question must rest with some form of popular plebiscite directly run and overseen by an international body…” This begs two questions: how many times must the Crimean people vote before the world recognizes that Crimean viewpoints and decisions do, indeed, matter; and which international body has the authority and credibility to conduct such another vote?

Gill must surely be aware of the long history of Western imperialist countries and the ‘international bodies’ they control or dominate sabotaging democratic votes and going so far as to assassinate those who win. Think of Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, assassinated by Belgian mercenaries in September 1960 barely four months after winning that country’s first, post-independence election. Think of Vietnam in 1954, when the Western world acceded to an election to take place in Vietnam in 1956 but was sabotaged by the United States and its allies and never took place. Instead of a free vote, the Vietnamese people suffered and endured a 30-year ‘American War’, as the Vietnamese people call it. Think of the long, long history of Western, imperialist governments overthrowing by violence elected governments all over the world when it suited their interests. Surely, no progressive would wish upon the people of Crimea that they cede their sovereignty to an ill-defined and today non-existent international body with the trust and authority to conduct yet another referendum.

The people of Crimea have earned a right to political self-determination through decades of struggle. They exercised this right in March 2014 by voting to join the Russian Federation. Liberal and left-wing opinion in the world should have no difficulty in welcoming the legitimacy of this vote. Graeme Gill’s essay does go a long way towards this. He and other writers on the subject should finish the job and tell the whole story to the world. It is a story and courage and endurance that should be respected and should be taught to others seeking freedom from imperialist diktat and tutelage.

The days of Western powers deciding which countries get to hold elections and which must endure coups and assassinations of their elected leaders are drawing to a close. The brave Crimean people and their fellow citizens of the Russian Federation are blazing a path towards a world of greater democracy and national sovereignty. The faster the world travels down this path, the quicker and more effective will be the global response to the most pressing and urgent issues of our times, namely, the global warming emergency, the deadly rise of imperialist militarism and war, and rising social and national inequities in large parts of the world, that is, those parts fo the world still suffering under Western domination.

Roger Annis is a retired aerospace worker in Vancouver, Canada. Since 2011, he has published A Socialist In Canada, a website blog reporting and analyzing world politics and the global warming emergency.

[1] How Crimea has changed as part of Russia: The republic’s first five-year plan in 20 charts, in the Russian daily Kommersant, March 18, 2019  Excerpt: According to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine, as of November 1, 2013, the national composition of Crimea was Russian (58.5%), Ukrainian (24.3%), and Crimean Tatar (12.1%). A population census of the Crimean Federal District was conducted in 2014 by Rosstat [Federal State Statistics Service of the Russian Federation]. It recorded the following breakdown: Russian 68.3%, Ukrainian 15.8%, Crimean Tatar 10.6%. In 2017, a survey by the Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) showed, 67.8% of Crimeans considered themselves ethnic Russians, almost 12% were Crimean Tatars, and only 7.5% were Ukrainians. (end excerpt)
[2] The story of Ukraine’s economy and its disastrous decline following 1991 is told in this 2022 book by Australian writer Renfrey Clarke: The Catastrophe of Ukrainian Capitalism: How privatisation dispossessed and impoverished the Ukrainian people, by Renfrey Clarke, published by Resistance Books, 2022, 176 pages. And read this interview with the author: published in Covert Action Magazine, May 5, 2023.

Background: One of the most authoritative books available in English on the history of Crimea is: The Crimea Question: Identity, Transition and Conflict, by Gwendolyn Sasse, Harvard U. Press, 2005, 384 pages (new, paperback edition issued in 2014). She is the director of the newly founded Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin, on secondment from Oxford University where she is Professor of Comparative Politics.


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