Ukraine’s Crimea and political identity

Brief Introduction to Political Identity

How people identify and the characteristics that they choose to define themselves are ever fluid and changing conceptual questions. The factors that some may think of as most critical may not even enter the picture for others. This ambiguity makes identity difficult to study, leaving studies to rely upon the politics of historical narratives and memories. Eastern Europe in particular has an interesting case through which to study political identity. States that were once post-Communist and under the control of the Soviet Union formed new identities in the wake of its fall. For many of these states, however, a continuing question has lain dormant – how do they handle the ethnic Russians who live there? Each country has handled it a bit differently, but none face as difficult a transition and challenge as Ukraine – a country where 17.3% of the population identified as ethnic Russians in 2001 (Ukrainian Census 2001).



Ukrainian political identity

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the question of identity has always been at the heart of studies on Ukraine and on other post-Communist countries. Particularly in the eastern part of the country where many speak Russian, whether one identifies as Russian, Ukrainian or somewhere in between plays a huge role in how one can understand the Crimean annexation. As mentioned earlier, historical memory and narrative are critical to how nations build identity. The complex identity crisis of Ukraine has to do with the fact that many of the people living in the country have a shared history with those in the Russian Federation. Not only do the Ukrainians and Russians have a shared history but additionally a shared memory (Kappeler 2012, 112).

From an imperialist understanding of the Russian Empire, Ukraine is included in the Kievan Russia, the historic dynasty (882 – 1240) from which both Ukraine and Russia claim cultural heritage. However, Ukraine is not thought of as independent from a Russian standpoint. Rather, it is merely thought of as a part of Russia itself. In support of this narrative, the “reunifications” of 1654, 1793 and 1939/1944 between Ukraine and Russia are considered as part of the Russian undisputed past. Ukrainians would, regardless, disagree. Ukraine’s history takes those same “reunifications” are frames them as times of oppression when the Ukrainian people fought against Russian rule. Furthermore, they emphasize Ukrainian’s link to Poland-Lithuania during the 14th – 18th centuries (Kappeler 2012, 112).



Competing Russian and Ukrainian historical narratives

Ukrainian political identity, however, is only one side of the story. Because historical narrative is so important, there are many distinct differences in how Russians and Ukrainians structure the history that binds them both together. As mentioned above, the issue of the Kievan Rus’ is one that deeply divides Ukrainian and Russian narratives. Famous Ukrainian historiographer and first President of Ukraine Mykhailo Hrushevs’ky claimed that the original Kievan Rus’ was a purely Ukrainian state. Most if not all Russian historians dispute this. Russian President Vladimir Putin often refers to the Kievan Rus’ as the shared cultural past that will forever link together Ukraine and Russia (Kappeler 2012, 113). Another more recent historical narrative that divides the two nations is that of Holodomor, the great famine of 1932-1933 where it is estimated that more than three million Ukrainians died of starvation. In Ukraine, this famine is often considered a genocide, one that was deliberately inflicted on Ukraine by then leader Joseph Stalin. While Russia does acknowledge this disaster, the tragedy for them is shared amongst all Soviet citizens, particularly Russians, rather than just Ukrainians. The discord between the two narratives is such that Ukrainian nationalists even demanded an official apology. While Russia never gave such an apology, former president Dmitri Medvedev instead attempted to frame both Russians and Ukrainians as victims of the Stalinist Soviet Union (Kappeler 2012, 114). Although these are only two of the disputed historical narratives, Crimea is yet another narrative that as of now, remains in question, with identity being the focal point in solving it.



Brief History of Crimea

Most Crimean citizens are thought to be ethnically Russian, leaving many analysts to claim that annexation is actually something that the eastern peninsula of Ukraine was happy to receive. After all, in 1994, Crimean citizens organized and voted on succession from Ukraine. While the government in Kiev declared this referendum illegal, the results showed strong support for a special relationship between Ukraine and Crimea, particularly one that allowed for dual Russian and Ukrainian citizenship. Fast forward to 2014 to the Russian annexation of Crimea following the Euromaidan protests and economic stagnation in the region at large, and it is understandable why so many analysts believe that the Crimean annexation was welcomed and based on the ethnic makeup of the population.

Crimea was transferred in 1954 from Russia to the Soviet-controlled Ukraine by the Soviet Union without consulting any of the citizens who lived there. According to documentation, this was due to the close ties that the Ukrainian satellite state had with Crimea. While Crimea and Ukraine mostly lived in harmony, a referendum was held in 1991 to declare Crimea as an autonomous Soviet Republic. However, as the Soviet Union dissolved, Crimea was again lumped with Ukraine as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea within Ukraine itself. While Crimea was not specifically given independence despite attempts throughout 1992, they were allowed extensive autonomy in their ruling procedures. In short, the region has always lusted after independence and closer ties with Russia. Is it any surprise then, that many wonder who lives in Crimea?



Who Lives in Crimea?

Following Eleanor Knott’s research on the different Crimean ethnic identities at the London School of Economics, there are immediate distinctions drawn between different types of citizens. There is no one large ethnic Russian minority as many would have us think. Instead, she identifies five different types of respondents: 1) Discriminated Russians, 2) Ethnic Russians, 3) Crimeans, 4) Political Ukrainians and 5) Ethnic Ukrainians.

1) Discriminated Russians: identify as Russian and feel discriminated against by Ukrainian language policies. Support pro-Russian organizations.
2) Ethnic Russians: identify as ethnically Russian but do not feel discriminated against by the Ukrainian state or by local Ukrainians. Felt a sense of belonging to Ukraine.
3) Crimeans: identify as Crimean first but share a sense of belonging to both Ukraine and Russia. Generally, come from mixed families.
4) Political Ukrainians: identify through their political connection and feeling of loyalty to Ukraine vs. Russia. Specifically thought of themselves as post-Soviet.
5) Ethnic Ukrainians: identify as Ukrainian as they were born in parts of Ukraine not in Crimea.

Although these findings are from 2013, they show that as opposed to the Russian narrative of purely Russian speakers living in Crimea – there was a vast array of different identities represented in the small region of Ukraine. Knott found that the majority of these citizens were happy with the status quo and preferred the autonomous status of Crimea to any kind of shift that would result in war or conflict. Interestingly, this is very much at odds with how the situation is portrayed in both Ukrainian and Western media as well. Either outlets report on the separatist aims of the citizens who lived in Crimea or victimize them in an effort to gain international support.



What does identity have to do with the Crimean annexation?

Politicizing identity from both the Ukrainian and Russian side makes the Crimean annexation simpler to understand. When Russians claim that they must protect the Russian speakers, they are using the commonly thought identity of all Crimeans to support their own actions in the region. Protecting the minority of Russians is a tactic that the Russian state has also used in frozen conflicts such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This strategy is also not one distinct to Russia. When justifying the intervention into Kosovo, Western powers asserted that they acted in order to protect the ethnic minority of Kosovar Albanians. When scolded by other states for their actions in Crimea, Russian representatives often point to this hypocrisy.

On the other hand, Ukrainians claim that all Crimeans are Ukrainians and that the region must be returned to Ukraine. Although there was much dispute about the identity of the region from 1956 to today, Ukrainians use the supposed pure Ukrainian identity of Crimea to cry out in indignation on the world stag against Russian intervention. Framing of the matter in this way allows the Ukrainians not only to act the victim, but also to cast Russia as the sole enemy rather than allowing any room for discussion on potential economic stagnation in the region or dissatisfaction with the Ukrainian government.

Identity is an important lens in which to study Crimea, because if we look just under the surface – there’s an entirely different story to the one that both the Ukrainians and Russians are telling. Instead of relying on purely identity and ethnicity to tell the story, it’s more useful to problematize the identity politics of both states to better understand why they might be framing it in such a matter.

Brief Biography: Gabriella Gricius is a Senior Research Associate at the Public International Law and Policy Group in Amsterdam, Netherlands. She is pursuing her Masters in International Security at the University of Groningen and writes for Global Security Review as a freelance analyst on European Security.