I’m sitting on the train from Sevastopol to Kiev, on my way to the UK for a trip which has been planned for months.
Until yesterday, I wasn’t sure if I would be here. I waited to buy the ticket until the last minute, with no idea whether the trains would be running, or whether Kiev would decide to cut off this link.
Ukraine International Airlines, the national carrier, have stopped all flights between Simferopol (the capital of Crimea) and Kiev, at least until 29th April, but maybe for longer. Turkish Airlines have cancelled all Simferopol-Istanbul flights, although it’s not clear how long for, and they still appear on the departure boards. I’m hoping they restart by 6th April, when I’m due to fly back in. The only flights now are those to Moscow.
Cutting this link to Ukraine is just one of the moves which make me wonder what they and the West really want to happen in Crimea now.
Before the referendum, it was being denounced as illegal. Since then, various statesmen and organisations have repeated their declaration that it is not valid, including Obama, William Hague (the British Foreign Minister) and the UN. In the latter case, it’s interesting to note quite how many abstentions and votes against the motion there were: it wasn’t quite as clear-cut as the Western media I’ve seen likes to make out.
Alienation and abandonment?
In the two weeks since the 2014 referendum happened I have read and heard little which makes me think that Crimea would be better off as part of Ukraine. Instead, I’ve seen a series of actions which strike me as the Kiev government repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot.
During a press conference in which Ban Ki-Moon welcolmed the fact that Russian would become an official language, Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting President, corrected him and told him this would not happen. Linguistic politics is an incredibly complex thing, and every country has a different solution to it. Ukrainian and Russian have very different histories, and there has been suppression of Ukrainian at various points in the past. However, the fact that so many people speak Russian in Ukraine means that it should be an official language in the country, so that those who chose to be educated in Russian-medium schools are not disadvantaged. The government are not trying to punish people for speaking Russian, but they do make life a lot harder for those who are not comfortable in Ukrainian. For example, those in Sevastopol who finished school before Ukrainian independence never studied the language at school. They were then thrust into a world where all contracts and official documents had to be in Ukrainian. Those who say that Ukrainian should be the only official language of Ukraine are clearly threatened by Russian, but I think if they allow people to use it in official situations, they might be more willing to accept Ukrainian on equal terms. The division this has created has exacerbated many of the tensions of the past month. Surely agreeing that Russian can be an official language would go at least some way to appeasing those in cities like Donetsk and Kharkiv?
To counter my own argument, I’m sharing my train compartment with a Russian-speaking family: parents and 30-something daughter. The father has a USSR-Iran tattoo on his arm, so I assume he fought in the Soviet army at some point. When they found out I’d come from Sevastopol, the first thing they asked was whether there were soldiers in the streets. I’ve seen more army trucks in the last few days, but I think that’s because they’re returning to bases. The family are travelling overnight from Melitopol in Southern Ukraine to Kiev, a 12-hour plus journey, specifically to hear Yulia Tymoshenko speak in Maidan tomorrow afternoon – Saturday 29th April 2014. They believe she will be President after the May 25th elections. This is one example of how difficult these linguistic ‘divisions’ really are: Tymoshenko is incredibly pro-Ukrainian; I have no idea what her views on language are.
The way that the Ukrainian government treated their servicemen in bases in Crimea is another problem area. For days, servicemen were left to deal with a difficult situation with no direct orders from Kiev. They asked what to do, and were left hanging. When violence kicked off at a base, resulting in the death of a Ukrainian officer, little mention was made in Western media of the Russian who was killed at the same time, and possibly by the same sniper, in what seemed to be an act of deliberate provocation. They were buried in a joint funeral, which again received little coverage. Pro-Russian forces (who may or may not have been official Russian army or navy forces) stormed bases and ships and forcibly evicted many of the Ukrainian servicemen. I don’t understand why this was felt necessary, since Crimea is clearly Russian now, and a Ukrainian invasion started from their bases in Crimea was obviously never going to happen. I suspect the pro-Russians just wanted the whole thing done and dusted, which it seems to be now. However much I might disagree with it, it happened, and the Ukrainian government’s only response, as far as I can gather, was to authorise the servicemen to use weapons in self-defence.
The Ukrainian Prime Minister warned that “the conflict is shifting from a political to a military stage” and claimed that “Russian soldiers have started shooting at Ukrainian servicemen and that is a war crime”. His government, he added, has now authorised the use of firearms for its forces surrounded in their bases in Crimea.
Thankfully, noone took them up on this. Kiev eventually gave orders to retreat, but this was too little, too late. This was a very difficult decision to make, and I don’t envy the people who had to make it, but blaming Ukrainian servicemen for going over to Russia after they’ve been through all this seems to lack understanding.
There is also the rumour of a new law being drafted at the moment. I have seen nothing in Western media about it, but here is an article from RT (an English-language Russian news source) describing it, along with a statement from the UN Refugee Agency expressing concerns about the law. This is the main reason I didn’t get my train ticket until last night – it made people here worry about me going to Kiev, and saying I should travel via Moscow to be on the safe side. This is the third time I’ve travelled on this train, and the first time I’ve had my passport checked. It seems that Crimea will be declared as ‘under occupation’ and that those deemed as helping Russia to get Crimea may be liable for up to ten years in jail. I have no idea about whether the law will be passed (last I heard it had been returned for consultation with over 200 suggested amendments), or how exactly it might be enforced, but they’re going to need some pretty big sticks, and some pretty big prisons, if it’s actually true. And if such a law is passed, what do the government think it will actually achieve, apart from alienating the people of Crimea even more? Also, surely there are more important things they should be worrying about.
Money, money, money
The most noticeable change since the referendum has been financial. I have never been so aware of how the flow of money works as in the last two weeks.
Cash machines have all been empty since a couple of days after the referendum. Apparently, banks are worried about sending money here. Part of this goes back to rumours of the law mentioned above: they may not want to be seen to be ‘helping’ Russia in any way.
PrivatBank, one of the biggest banks here, appear to have pulled out of Crimea completely. Their cash machines were the first to empty out. Shops and restaurants which have card readers supplied by them are entirely reliant on their customers having cash. I’ve never seen the café next to school looking so consistently empty.
I have no idea how long businesses will be able to hold out under this pressure. I managed to get cash at the bank, but I don’t know people with PrivatBank accounts are coping.
It’s not clear what exactly will happen with Privatbank or the other banks here: whether they’ll continue as they are or be bought out or replaced by Russian banks. A couple of Russian banks were already here, but I’ve been told they operate via Kiev, so their status is also up in the air.
Prices have started to appear in roubles, although the Ukrainian hryvnia (UAH) should still be accepted until 1st January 2016. The problem is that the roubles to pay those prices don’t seem to be here yet, although officially they’ve been accepted since Monday 25th March. Things also seem a lot cheaper in roubles, and there’s a lot of confusion over the exchange rate. The official exchange rate is 3.8 roubles to 1 UAH but prices I’ve seen are normally 1 UAH to about 2.5 roubles. Again, surely that will cause economic problems down the line?
That’s not fair, Mr Putin!
As far as I’m concerned, Crimea is now Russian. I don’t believe that this was anything other than capitalising on the lack of stability in Ukraine at the end of February and the clear desire of Crimeans to be part of Russia, or that it’s in Putin’s interests to add any more territory to the Russian Federation, no matter how many reports there are in the media about where Putin might grab next. There are even rumours that he might be thinking about taking Alaska (I like this Forbes parody). But nowhere else has quite the pull of the Crimean peninsula on the Russian psyche, combined with such long-lasting connections and such an easy way to take control.
The West can’t be seen to let Russia get away with this, so they’re going through the motions of trying to decide on appropriate punishments, but can’t agree what those punishments should be. So far, sanctions have been dismissed by those targeted, and reciprocal sanctions put in place by Russia are likely to have just as little effect. The fact that Russia would be very stupid to try and take any more territory from any country, Ukraine or otherwise (unless there is a genuine threat to Russians there, instead of the trumped up ones their media has been creating), means I think it’s unlikely a next level of sanctions will be put in place. I hope I don’t regret writing that in a few weeks.
It feels like a playground fight which nobody will be able to win.
So where does this leave Crimea?
As I write this, there is an ever-increasing level of distrust between the West and Russia, which is still being reported on during Obama’s visit to Europe. Crimea has become shorthand for the West’s fears of what Putin might be capable of, fears which are being stoked across much of the media I have seen.
People I’ve spoken to here (in Sevastopol) are riding a wave of optimism caused by turning to Russia and distancing from Ukraine. Everyone is excited about what the future will hold and the benefits of being part of a ‘strong’ country.
But Ukraine and the West refuse to recognise that Crimea is part of Russia, and will continue to do so. If they do, Putin will have won.
Crimea will continue to be listed as Ukraine in anything official outside Russia, which will leave it in some kind of legal limbo. Crimeans who want to go abroad will have to get visas from embassies in Kiev, and I assume that visas obtained via Moscow will be considered invalid. This is just one among all kinds of other problems that this in-between status will cause, like where it appears on Wikipedia.
My main question now, and what all this scene-setting has been leading up to, is: what is the outcome which Ukraine and the West are aiming for with regard to Crimea? Crimea will never be part of Ukraine again, but how long will it take for the outside world to realise this? What price will Crimeans have to pay for their choice to be recognised? And why can I only find one article asking this in the media?