In February 2014 troops lacking military insignia invaded Crimea and swiftly took over key military and strategic sites. A referendum was hastily organised, even though it violated Ukrainian law and international norms. The Russian press claimed that 97 per cent of those who voted were in favour of annexation and 83 per cent of the electorate had turned out. While these figures were cited by international news media sources, a report by the President of Russia’s Council on Civil Society and Human Rights (that was posted at the president-sovet.ru web site) showed that only between 15-30 per cent of Crimean citizens voted for unification with Russia. With the bogus referendum swept under the rug, a treaty was signed between the newly proclaimed Republic of Crimea and the Russian Federation to initiate a process of integration.
The peninsula was so radically transformed during this period that people here often say they went to sleep in one country and awoke in another. While the change in power and authority from Ukraine to Russia was greeted with a great deal of fanfare and enthusiasm by the pro-Russian part of the population, a significant proportion of the pro-Ukrainian population felt sufficiently threatened to flee the peninsula. The first wave left very early, when it was clear that Ukraine was not going to fight to defend the territory and the “little green men” were rapidly gaining control. A second wave followed after the contested referendum when the illegal occupation was declared an “annexation.”
Unfortunately, there are no reliable statistics to tell us the exact number displaced as a result of Russian Federation’s occupation. At first, statistics were captured by the State Emergency Services of Ukraine, a function that was subsequently transferred to the Ministry of Social Policy. Vitaliy Muschinin, a deputy minister, notes that while some 20,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Crimea have been registered, this is only a subset of the total number. Another reason to be sceptical of this number is the fact that that Ukraine’s border services have reported a net outflow from Crimea three times higher than the number reported by the Ministry of Social Policy. IDPs who fled Crimea are now scattered across Ukraine. To capture the experience of those displaced by the conflict, I carried out 125 interviews over a two-year period.
My first aim was to explore the reasons why people left. The gross abuse of power by the new authorities created a situation in which many left in order to preserve their rights, freedoms or, in some cases, their very lives. Unfortunately, the areas that received the migrants were ill-equipped to accommodate them. Even though the government lacked experience and resources to address internal displacement, the Ukrainian people, inspired by the Revolution of Dignity, had both the will and desire to help those who arrived from Crimea. Two main findings from the interviews stand out: first, population displacement contributed to the development of a new civic identity that has the potential to unite Ukrainians and fill a void with regard to Ukrainian national identity. Second, there is deep disenchantment with the Ukrainian state that manifests itself most strongly in feelings of having been abandoned and betrayed by the government. The principal task ahead is to resolve the barriers and overcome challenges that stand in the way of IDP integration, so the state and society can function together.
Asked why they left, my respondents stated plainly and unequivocally that they disagreed with the change in power and that they would not live under the occupational authorities. Whether it was to have a political opinion, profess a faith, feel safe in their home or avoid torture and death, all were seeking to preserve their fundamental rights. The right to a political opinion was violated by threats and the actual disappearance of many pro-Ukrainian individuals in Crimea. The right not to be tortured was violated with the beatings of those who were arrested. The right to have a private life was slipping away, as searches of homes and schools became routine. Religious organisations have been a primary target. For example, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church had to give up some of their premises, and police conducted sweeps of mosques, on some occasions arresting every single man emerging from Friday prayers for fingerprinting and DNA testing.
Given these conditions it is not surprising that Crimean Tatars label the policies of the de facto authorities to be a “hybrid” or hidden deportation. This should not be surprising considering that very recently, flyers were distributed instructing them what to bring in the event of an “evacuation.” Crimean Tatars draw parallels between their own experience and that of European Jews at the hands of the Third Reich. The traumatic past (both that of the Crimean Tatars and the European Jews) is in a sense haunting the present. A term that often used to express this notion is “hybrid deportation”. The term communicates the feelings of vulnerability and historical injustice, and it captures the ways in which the choice to leave is a forced one.
The Ukrainian government was not prepared to deal with an influx of internally displaced persons. Ukrainian officials interviewed during this study readily admitted a lack of experience that resulted in notable policy and protection gaps. Corruption also undermined the government’s ability to meet the needs of IDPs. The government’s policy has in effect led to a situation where IDPs do not enjoy a full set of rights in what is called free Ukraine. One manifestation of the issue is voting privileges. In July 2015, for example, Ukraine's parliament approved a law that excludes IDPs from participating in local elections. And according to Ukrainian law, neither birth nor death certificates issued in the Russian-occupied territory are recognised. Families must go through time consuming and potentially costly court proceedings to legalise their stay. Banking is another example of a skewed policy response to the IDPs. One of the first activities of the Ukrainian authorities, after the occupation, was to freeze Crimeans’ funds in Ukrainian banks in the occupied territory. Some were able to recover their funds through the painstaking intervention of NGOs, while others lost them irretrievably. What is more, Ukrainian citizens with Crimean documents could not open a new bank account in Ukraine proper.
In short, IDPs from the occupied territories believe that Ukrainian government policies make them second-class citizens, attached to the body politic but not fully joined as political subjects. The Ukrainian government seems to be saying that the territory has been occupied unlawfully; what IDPs are hearing, however, is a form of rejection and condemnation. Officials were rumoured to have said that those who accepted Russian passports, essential to life in the Russian-controlled territory, are “traitors.”
The fact that Ukraine did not defend Crimea from Russian incursion, coupled with the lack of rights and essential benefits in mainland Ukraine, have led many IDPs to believe it is they who have been betrayed by Ukraine. The word used to describe this, predatel’stvo, is heavily saturated with meaning because it is also the word that has been used to discredit and disenfranchise Crimean Tatars since the Second World War. After the 2014 occupation, Ukrainians asked why the Crimean Tatars had not stepped forward to do the work of the Ukrainian army and defend the peninsula against the Russian take-over. There is an uncomfortable irony in this choice of words because of the (unreciprocated) loyalty to Ukraine that Crimean Tatars demonstrated for over two decades in independent Ukraine.
In addition to this, IDPs who have left their homes, jobs and personal belongings in the Russian-occupied territory sometimes need financial assistance. Individuals who are registered as IDPs are entitled to a small stipend. However, the amount is so small that only a slight proportion of IDPs from Crimea actually apply. Another limitation is the fact that benefits are highly contingent and there are a host of factors that can make one ineligible. For example, if an individual is unemployed for one month the benefits are cut in half. At the end of two months they are cut entirely. As a result, those who are most in need are often the ones who are most often denied support. Officials in the Ministry of Social Policy suggested that the logic behind this policy is to avoid dependency and to offer an incentive to work.
Work, however, is difficult to find. NGOs have turned their attention from reception of IDPs to the issue of employment, by focusing on training IDPs to open small businesses as well as offering grants and loans. This is a wise approach; the Ministry of Social Policy observes that there are more job seekers than jobs and the ones that are available are officially low paid.
With an eye towards the future, the government of Ukraine is collaborating with international organisations to resolve the issues of employment and housing confronting the internally displaced. The World Bank and the United Nations Development Fund are perceived as the primary donors. In the last two years, the World Bank Group has provided a total of 4.7 billion US dollars to Ukraine. The International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have also been very active, distributing humanitarian aid to the most needy families and grants and loans to those with a promising business proposal.
In spite of the weak government response to IDPs, Ukrainian civil society was primed to receive them. The EuroMaidan protests resulted in the formation of coordinated networks of citizens that turned their attention to IDPs once the revolution was behind them. This development is of strong significance. After the conflict with Russia in the east and the occupation of Crimea in the south, a clearer sense of what it means to be Ukrainian has begun to emerge. This new civic identity, initially marked by the recognition of a common enemy in Vladimir Putin, has grown to encompass the identification of a common Ukrainian-Crimean Tatar history and a new sense of political empowerment. No longer just the inhabitants of a distant land, IDPs from Crimea are in a unique position to educate. If the average Ukrainian knew very little about Crimea or Crimean Tatars before, they became very curious as a result of the occupation. Cooking clubs, master classes, personal friendships and the flush of new businesses opened by IDP-entrepreneurs are all helping to bridge this gap. IDPs believe that they have a special role to play, helping the Ukrainian population as a whole to become psychologically prepared for the day when Crimea is (hopefully) de-occupied.
It is specifically freedom that is the primary unifying value here. It not only unites various people around Ukraine, but separates them from Russians who presumably do not value freedom of thought or conscience. While the discourse of freedom is hardly surprising in this post-revolutionary moment, the folding in of Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians under this rubric represents a shift when compared to the separation and suspicion between the two groups in the past. It is important to underscore that these feelings were not unique to Crimean Tatar IDPs. A common refrain among all the ethnic groups was the statement that whereas it used to be ethnicity that divided people of Ukraine, it is now political loyalty.
New sense of Ukrainianness
A crucial part of this civic identity relies on creating a collective past – a process that resonates with nation-building projects. Such things as fighting battles on the same side, having common wedding rituals with the same melodies in music, common toponyms (place names), styles of dress among Tatars and the Cossacks and of course values are considered to be held in common in today’s Ukraine. This new sense of Ukrainianness is strengthened by a growing awareness of an ability to act in the world. To a certain extent, the IDPs saw their displacement as a loss that also contained an opportunity. This provides a contrast to the past, when the dominant narratives had to do with victimisation at the hands of the Soviets, either in the form of collectivisation of the 1944 deportation or the Holodomor. While the theme of deportation and its legacy of discrimination surfaced in the metaphor of a “hybrid deportation”, the IDPs problematised any discourse of victimisation or victimhood and spoke rather of crossing thresholds and turning pages.
It is difficult to predict whether the sense of Ukrainian national identity will continue to solidify, or whether tropes of treason and betrayal will undermine the forging of a new political culture. Concerns that they could be labelled as “traitors” and undergo deportation at the hands of Ukraine are sobering reminders that the structure of feeling following the Revolution of Dignity have yet to precipitate into robust and longstanding institutions of civil society. Upon returning from a short visit to aging parents in occupied Crimea, one IDP captured the ambivalence of being displaced by highlighting the fact that it is uncomfortable for the migrants, whether they return to occupied Crimea or stay in free Ukraine.
Greta Uehling is a lecturer in comparative and international studies at the Center for Russian and East European Studies of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.