Crimea, Central Asia, & Russia: Cheat Sheet Part One

Introduction and Overview

Russia’s recent military incursion into the Crimea has brought a level of attention to the northern Black Sea region rarely seen over the last couple of centuries. This corner of the northern Black Sea is generally not a source of daily global news. Nonetheless, when the world’s focus is drawn to Crimea, it seldom disappoints.

In 1854 Tennyson marked the events of the Battle of Balaclava with his famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” This engagement, part of the disastrous Crimean War, precipitated enormous changes to Russian domestic policy.  As economic historian Alexander Gershchenkron famously noted, Russia’s dramatic loss marked the beginning of the development of the modern, Russian economy with significant implications for subsequent political development. Nearly a century later, in 1945, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill negotiated the outlines of post-War Europe at Yalta – the implications of which remain a point of historical contention. In 2014, the phrase “New Cold War” is bandied about with increasing frequency and Russia’s intentions in the region are breathlessly discussed across global media.

The implications of Russia’s actions in the Crimea are indeed myriad across multiple issues germane to the study of Eurasia.  The commentary from scholars of the former Soviet Union has been prolific over the course of the last few weeks. Three topics of discussion in particular stand out: (i) Crimea and the Crimean Tatar population; (ii) the prospects for democratization and the long term stability of the Central Asian states; and (iii) Russia’s long-term geopolitical strategy and the future development of the Eurasian Union. In the first of two blog posts, I seek to assist those attempting to muddle through this vast ocean of commentary and set out some of the main points made by area experts from a diversity of perspectives regarding these three areas. This week I look at the connection between the situation in Crimea and Central Asia, and next week I will explore both the recent commentary as well as the academic literature on the topic of the Eurasian Union, an entity which is understood diversely as “Soviet Union Lite” to “A Weak Customs Union.” There has been quite a bit of excellent analysis and commentary on these topics, but due to constraints of space all of these cannot be incorporated here – instead links are provided.

Crimea and the Crimean Tatars

The Central Asian factor is salient from the outset simply owing to the position of the Crimean Tatars – a Turkic, Muslim ethnic group deported en masse in 1944 to the Uzbek SSR and other points east, only beginning to trickle back to the region in the 1960s. Today, Crimean Tatars comprise roughly 12% of the population of the region according to relatively recent census data. As Alexey Malashenko at the Moscow Carnegie Center has noted: “Most Tatars are moderate, preserving the memory of Ismail Gaspirali, a renowned 20th-century reformer. At the same time, a significant segment of Muslim youth is quite radical. These people share Salafi attitudes; they sympathize and communicate with their ideological companions in the North Caucasus.” Malashenko raises the possibility of the radical Hizb-ut Tahrir taking advantage of the opportunity and encourages us to consider framing the question in light of the Crimean population as a site of contestation for multiple political entrepreneurs with deeply conflicting agendas – noting the presence of Crimean Tatars fighting under the banner of Islam against the Assad regime in Syria to buttress his point.

Concomitantly, scholars explored the likely responses by the Crimean Tatar population to the March 16th referendum on whether the province should become part of Russia. For example, Oxana Shevel from Tufts University, writing in the Washington Post blog “The Monkey Cage,” states: “Going back to the 1991 independence referendum, the narrow vote in favor of Ukrainian state independence in Crimea may have been thanks to the vote of the Crimean Tatars.  Since then, the Crimean Tatars and their representative organ, the Mejlis, have cooperated with the pro-Ukrainian political parties. Leaders of the Mejlis such as Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov have been members of the Ukrainian parliament elected on the party list of Ukrainian nationalist parties such as Rukh in the 1990s and later from Our Ukraine party.”

These political relationships and the moderation which Malashenko notes is underscored in the recent statements of Crimean Tatar chairman Refat Chubarov, who reportedly urged residents of the peninsula to boycott the vote, stating: “The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars does not recognize this referendum.” Shevel goes on to note the tradition of non-violent resistance of the Tatars and the likelihood that Russian annexation will precipitate active opposition from this group.

This also appears to be supported by evidence of heightening anxiety within the Tatar community regarding their safety under Russian rule – a concern derived from the community’s historical experience. Recent reports in The Guardian and other outlets from Simferopol and Backchisaray note the activities of pro-Russia militias targeting the Tatar population, with Tatar homes being marked with a large “X,” disconcertingly similar to that used by Soviet authorities in 1944 to mark those who were to be deported.

Finally, just to add to the complexity, we need to take note of the broader history of the Crimean Tatars, recalling the position as a vassal khanate of the Ottoman Empire from the 1470s until 1783. The importance of this historical relationship comes galloping into view as we note the words of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who declared during a rally earlier this week in the city of Eskiseher: “We will not leave the Crimean Tatars in the lurch.” He went on to point out that he had spoken to Russian president Vladimir Putin about his government’s concerns over the status of the Crimean Tatars.

Recent corruption scandals have left Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) searching for methods to shore up their political base which draws significant grassroots supports from nationalist groups. As Sinan Ülgen, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Center in Brussels stated: “They [AKP leaders] don’t want to be criticized by the nationalist constituency for having failed to protect the Tatars … (Turkey) cannot be seen to be indifferent to the fate of Tatars, its own kin, at a time when it portrays itself as protector of victimized people in the Middle East”. Thus the Erdogan government finds itself walking a very thin line – taking into account domestic political necessities, while also taking into account its relationship with Russia. Turkey relies on Russia for over half of its natural gas supplies and Russia is the sixth largest market for Turkish exports. At the same time, tensions over Syria present an additional impediment to Ankara’s pushing too hard on this topic. Violence between Crimean Tatars and the Russian population in Crimea being the worst case scenario, as Umut Uzer at Istanbul Technical University has pointed out: ““There would be certain nationalist individuals who might be willing to go there (Crimea) and fight” (Bayram Balci’s recent piece for the Moscow Carnegie Center is also helpful).

Ukraine, Crimea, and the Prospects for Democratization in Central Asia

Implications of the referendum for other regimes in the post-Soviet space are being discussed and governments in Central Asia are responding with caution. The parallels in governing style between Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev and the regimes of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan, and Emomalii Rahmon in Tajikistan have been a bit too close for comfort. The Uzbek Foreign Ministry issued a cautious statement last week: “The events unfolding in Ukraine, which have led to serious complications of a difficult situation and to a standstill, and which could lead to mounting pressure with unpredictable consequences. The real threats to the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must elicit deep concern in Uzbekistan”. However, the subsequent press conference of Ukraine’s ambassador in Tashkent, Yuri Savchenko, was not reported in the Uzbek media. In Dushanbe, the authorities responded by blocking access to Radio Free Europe.

Nationalist rhetoric within Russia, most notably by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, has also served to raise tensions as he called on Russia to annex the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia in their entirety, referring to it as: “Russia’s Central Asian circuit with a capital in Vernyi” (an historical Russian name for the current capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty).

At the same time, proposed legislation in the Russian Duma which would grant citizenship to any fluent Russian speaker who once resided in or had relatives who resided in the former USSR is of additional concern. While procedures have been place for the granting of Russian citizenship, the bureaucratic hurdles are legendary – this sort of “fast track” approach, echoing the Russian Consulate’s distribution of passports in the Crimea recently raises questions about the status of Russians in northern Kazakhstan (a majority of the population) and what would prevent Moscow from stepping in to “protect” them if they should decide to avail themselves of Russian citizenship.

Regarding the implications for democratization, Marlene Laruelle and Sean Roberts from George Washington University provide an excellent discussion in the “Monkey Cage” blog: “Although past “Color Revolutions” in Eurasia have had nationalist connotations, the overthrow of Yanukovych is the first time a regime change in the region has involved the active participation of an organized right-wing nationalist opposition.  For the central Asian states, which have long positioned themselves as ‘anti-nationalist,’ this raises new concerns about the power of their own nationalist-inspired opponents.  This is especially true for Kazakhstan, where the specter of Kazakh nationalism is growing and is explicitly anti-regime, especially among the youth.” On the other hand, Central Asian leaders also must be watching recent events in Crimea with an eye toward the potential actions of Russia in its ‘near abroad.’”

They hypothesize several conclusions about how Central Asian leaders are conceptualizing events in Ukraine and the Russian role therein, specifically highlighting the possibility of “frozen” conflicts becoming “hot” if Moscow seeks to make that happen, which “raises questions about the future of formerly contested terrain in central Asia, such as the Uzbek enclaves in Kyrgyzstan, the mostly Russian populated north of Kazakhstan, or the towns of Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan.” Additionally, they point out that: “Russia is willing to intervene in the former Soviet space under the pretext of stabilizing a “failing regime” if its interests are directly served (which was not the case in the conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010), and the region’s other large neighbor, China, is willing to at least tacitly support such actions. This gives Dushanbe and Bishkek, as well as Astana and maybe even Tashkent, some food for thought. This is especially disconcerting for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which are already facing uncertain processes of presidential succession that could become messy.” Galymzhan Kirbassov’s piece, “Why the leaders of Kazakhstan are not (yet) losing sleep over Crimea,” gives an important alternative perspective. Additional perspectives about the implications for Central Asia are provided by the George Washington University Elliott School Central Asia Program, which recently conducted interviews on this question with regional experts Shairbek Juraev from Kyrgyzstan, Erlan Karin from Kazakhstan, Abdulfattoh Shafiev fro Tajikistan, and Farkhad Tolipov from Uzbekistan.

The current analyses of events in Crimea and their implications for Central Asia are indeed diverse and are likely to become even more complex as scholars wade through the outcomes of this weekend’s referendum.  Next week we will take a step back and look at what all of this means, in the eyes of experts, for the future development of the Eurasian Union, Sino-Russian relations, and the economic development of Central Asia.