Archive for September 2014
Retired navy officer Yury Mishin says he was on the verge of tears when he realised Crimea might be incorporated into Russia. “I remember how back in the service days I was thrilled every time I heard the Soviet anthem while lining up on the deck of my nuclear missile carrier for the morning check. It was the very same feeling”.
A battle reenactment enthusiast and a collector of vintage Soviet cars, Mishin runs the ‘Funny Dolphin’ hostel in Sevastopol. It used to cater almost exclusively to Western backpackers, but there is none in town since Crimea was annexed by Russia in March this year. Mishin’s wife lost her job as an English-language guide when Western cruise liners stopped calling at Sevastopol, while agencies specialising in war history tours suspended trips to Balaklava battlefield.
Mishin says sales in his hostel have dropped by more than 50% this year, although in September they started picking up as more Russians headed to Crimean looking for jobs or property in the stunningly beautiful peninsula with comfortable Mediterranean climate. Crimeans have been facing a multitude of problems after the annexation – skyrocketing prices, problems with food supplies, power blackouts and food shortages.
This is however compensated by much higher pensions and salaries in the budget sector, so most people – Mishin included – don’t seem to regret the changes. Yet, there are many dissenters, most notably the Crimean Tatars as well as a small part of ethnic Russian middle class and intelligentsia.
Raids and Boycott
Dissent doesn’t go well with the new authorities. On Tuesday, special forces seized the office of Crimean Tatar umbrella organisation, the Mejlis, in the Crimean capital, Simferopol. The building was cordoned off by masked armed people without insignia as security agents searched the offices of Mejlis leaders.
Masses of documents as well as all computers were removed in what the authorities said was a part of an investigation into the events of May 3, when thousands of Crimean Tatars attempted to create a human corridor across the newly emerged border between Crimean and mainland Ukraine to let in their deported leader, Mustafa Jemilev. “The authorities are trying to provoke the Crimean Tatars into violence in order to justify the use of force and weapons against them”, Mejlis foreign affairs coordinator Ali Khamzin told Morgenbladet.
He also said the Russians were avenging Crimean Tatars for the boycott of September 14 election – the first since the annexation. It was conducted under the new legislation with representatives of Russian political parties running for seats in Crimea’s parliament and the city council of Sevastopol, an independent entity under the law. The election resulted in Russia’s ruling party, the United Russia, winning virtually all seats in both bodies.
Crimean Tatars ruled the peninsula until it was colonised by Russian empress Catherine the Great in the 18th century. In 1944, Stalin’s government accused them of collaborating with Hitler and sent the entire people into exile in Central Asia and Siberia, with thousands dying on the way and in the first years of the exile. Crimean Tatars were not allowed to return until the final years of the USSR. Vast majority of those currently living in Crimea repatriated in the 1990s. Crimean Tatars make up at least 12% of the population and remain staunchly pro-Ukrainian.
Dilyara Seitveliyeva, whose family runs a small guesthouse and a restaurant in the sleepy central Crimean town of Bakhchysaray, formerly the capital of Crimean Tatar khans, fought for the right to live in the land of her ancestors back in the 1970s. She and her husband managed to return from Central Asia and linger in a remote Crimean village for four years despite constant harassment by the KGB before being expelled together with elderly parents and two children. She could only return in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, her brother, Mustafa Jemilev, was in prison for defending the Crimean Tatar cause. One of the most prominent Soviet-era dissidents and a friend of Andrey Sakharov, these days he is the undisputed political leader of the Crimean Tatars, while Seitveliyeva now finds herself in a situation reminiscent of the Soviet times.
The restaurant run by Seitveliyeva’s family was raided by police a few days after it featured in a Russian TV documentary aimed at smearing Jemilev, who was banned from entering Crimea back in April. “Six plainclothes detectives aided by six gunmen broke into the premises with no prior warning and started checking every bit of the property”, Seitveliyeva says. The prosecutor’s office eventually opened criminal cases with the view to closing both the hotel and the restaurant under the pretext of minor irregularities caused by contradictions in the Ukrainian legislation, which could be used against every single business in Crimea.
Seitveliyeva is the head of the Crimean Tatar teachers’ union. On the day of the election, she was with an all-female group of about 30 Crimean Tatar teachers holding a workshop on adapting their classes to the rules imposed by the Russians. Asked if any of them voted in the Russian election, they all shook heads in disapproval.
The meeting was presided over by veteran teacher Sultaniye Kharakhady who went through utter hell in order to be able to live in Crimea back in the Soviet times. Bizarrely, KGB left her alone after she threatened to complain about her treatment to Mother Teresa. Asked why the Crimean Tatars were boycotting the election, she said: “This new government came to power in a military coup. So why should we go to the polling stations and endorse their dictatorship and the annexation”.
Another veteran teacher, Fatime Saytullayeva, regrets that the Ukrainian army didn’t offer armed resistance to the Russian invasion. “At the time, we praised Ukrainian soldiers for not opening fire. But now I think they should have started shooting”.
Polling station in Bakhchysaray were not exactly swarming with people on the election day, September 14, as Morgenbladet observed. An election official conceded it was due to the high percentage of Crimean Tatar population.
By contrast, people queued for hours at a polling station in Sevastopol, a city largely populated by people linked to the Russian navy and attracting large numbers of Russian military pensioners. Vladimir, who owns a smallish bar facing Sevastopol’s spectacular harbour, was guarding a polling station in the suburb of Inkerman as part of the city’s self-defence – a paramilitary group that assisted the Russian army during the invasion. Like many residents, he wasn’t born in Sevastopol and came here from Russia only six years ago.
“When I was joining the self-defence, I told my wife that I would defend Sevastopol from the fascists at any price”, he says. By “fascists” he means the participants in pro-European protests that rocked Kiev last winter. He nearly went to fight on the Russian side in east Ukraine, but the family persuaded him not do so. Many of his comrades from the self-defence did go there. One of the died – got burnt in a take. Another one spent a month in Sevastopol recovering from serious wounds and went back to fight.
Vladimir expressed his dismay at the lack of local support to pro-Russian fighters in Donbass: “These miners who claimed they would be the first to rise up, they are still working in the mines. Well, you know who is fighting there – [former Ukrainian] special forces men, war veterans and of course the Russian military who take vacations in order to go and fight”.
The hostel owner Yury Mishin, who also joined the self-defence back in February, says many of his friends from war reenactment groups were also fighting and dying in Donbass. Incidentally, the most famous Donetsk Republic commander Igor Girkin aka Strelkov had also been active in the war reenactment community, although Mishin claims he never met personally.
But the support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not unanimous even in the overwhelmingly pro-Russian Sevastopol. Just a hundred metres away from a polling station in Sevastopol, a lamp post was decorated with a hand-made poster featuring Putin’s name paired with an obscene word.
Voices of dissent among ethnic Russians, who make up a majority in the peninsula, are not difficult to come by. Many middle class people who in previous years were not particularly enthused by the Ukrainian independence got outraged by how Russia handled the takeover of Crimea.
A captain in charge of a pleasure boat based in the beautiful Balaklava fjord, 35-year-old Konstantin Sandulov says he considered himself to be Russian up until the invasion when he discovered that after 23 years of Ukrainian independence he was in fact a staunch patriot of Ukraine. He is now planning to leave Crimea where he was born and lived all his life.
“I hate indecency. I was brought up to believe that if there is a contract, or especially an international treaty, it should be observed. What Russia has done to Ukraine is just so utterly indecent that I decided I want to be Ukrainian rather than Russian”, he says referring to Russia’s failure to observe its obligations regarding Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Sandulov believes Ukraine has by and large lost Crimea, which in his opinion can only be returned by military means or by cutting it from supplies delivered from mainland Ukraine. He says he is more worried about the fate of his country as a whole: “Europeans shouldn’t stay passive. If Russia succeeds in grabbing Ukraine, they will be next. A predator who has tasted blood cannot be stopped. It will be slaughtering one victim after another, like Hitler did in WWII”.
Putin is great at duping people who say “don’t cry wolves”, me included. Each of his steps is so cautious, well-camouflaged and open to multiple interpretations that many observers fail to register his extremely dangerous overall trajectory. He probes and if he doesn’t meet any resistance, which almost always appears to be the case, he presses on. You can’t really say when exactly he dismantled Yeltsin-era democracy in Russia, but at some point it just became clear as a day. Acting in the same covert manner, he has dismantled the existing world order, but the world is yet to realise that.
The lesson we can learn from Putin is – think the unthinkable. It had been unthinkable he would invade Crimea, yet he did so. It had been unthinkable he’d start a war in Donbass, yet he did that, too. It had been unthinkable he would send regular troops to Ukraine, yet now it is sufficient to shuffle through Russian soldiers’ accounts on social networks or talk to their desperate relatives to figure out where they are and what they’ve been up to in recent weeks.
So it is totally worth acting on the assumption that nothing is inconceivable and whenever you pose a question about Putin’s ability to do something even more evil, the answer is likely to be positive. Yes, he can try to create a land corridor to Crimea by invading swathes of Ukrainian territory. Yes, his troops may march on Odessa and all the way to Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria. Yes, he can send tanks to seize Kiev and keep moving further west. The truth is we don’t really know who this men is and what he wants, whether he is driven by instinct or design, is he sane or suicidal and if there is anyone in his entourage or in Russia as a whole who can stop him.
He won’t tell us, but it is equally conceivable that he has reached the point where he wants to stop. It is quite possible that we should believe the head of the Russian Duma foreign committee Alexei Pushkov when he says that both sides are suffering “war fatigue” and that ceasefire agreements signed in Minsk last week signify “a logical end of the war”. But that already looked like wishful thinking when the rebels started shooting at Ukrainian positions near Mariupol on Saturday night, while the official Twitter feed of self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic @press_dnr announced that a full-out assault on Mariupol was under way.
All in all, Russia has made very little gain in eastern Ukraine – rebels control only parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, there is no land corridor to Crimea, while the settlement plan outlined in Minsk agreements looks suspiciously favourable for Ukraine. Rebel-held territories remain inside the country and there is no suggestion they’ll get the same rights as, for example Serb-held territories under Dayton agreement in Bosnia. It might be that Putin has just taken a break.
But if that’s not the case, there is no room for complacency. The world was shocked when Russian troops invaded Georgia in 2008. At that time, the Russians could have marched all the way to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, but they stopped short of doing so and agreed to the EU-brokered truce. Was it conceivable at the time that Putin will repeat this adventure on a much grander scale and with a much bigger and stronger ex-USSR country, such as Ukraine? But he did so and there is no guarantee he won’t decide to do something even more unthinkable some years later, even if Ukraine and Russia agree on the terms of permanent settlement now.
Who is Mr Putin? The question asked by a Western journalists when the new Russian leader emerged out of nowhere in 1999 still remains valid. Fifteen years after his sudden ascent to power, political scientists and media commentators still have no language to describe the political system Putin has built. Constant references to KGB, Soviet nostalgia, Russian imperialism, totalitarianism or nationalism are only helping to advance his cause by concealing the regime’s real, non-ideological nature. Putin’s Russia is built on unrestrained greed and the desire of very mediocre, but ruthless people, like himself and those around him, to live above the law and commonly accepted rules of decency. It is a Mafia state covered in moth-eaten and mismatching ideological rags. The culture Putin and his entourage belong to has much more to do with the ganglords of the 1990s than with the Communist leaders or KGB agents of the 1970s. This is reflected in their lifestyle, language and even musical tastes.
The person best suited to explain Putin’s political behaviour would be a conflict expert specialising in the Russian penitentiary system and criminal underworld. This behaviour is characterized by the perpetual brinkmanship, whereby your success is measured by your ability to raise stakes to mind boggling heights without losing nerve. It is also characterised by playing victim in a situation when in fact you are the perpetrator. The latter behavioural strategy lies at the heart of the blatant brainwashing Russian people are currently subject to. Russia is like a Latin American slum ruled by a powerful ganglord. Inside, it feels like a safe and relatively prosperous bubble, as long as you don’t start questioning what makes it safe and how public money is distributed. The outside world is full of enemies and risks – only the boss knows how to deal with them.
Breaking this narrative requires a major effort by the West to reach out directly to the Russian people with a message that would be both a stern warning and an offer of a viable alternative. As the history of Eastern Europe (and not least of Ukraine) shows the only incentive, which makes people rise and kick out rogue regimes, is the prospect of European integration – however remote, but real. But it takes a much more far-sighted and intellectually advanced Western leadership to start talking about integrating Russia. At the moment, the Kremlin is convinced – perhaps rightly – that it is dealing with the weakest set of Western leaders in history.