Elimination of the autonomy of Crimea: a provocation or a timely discussion?

The statement of the adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Mykhailo Podolyak about the deprivation of the status of autonomy of the administrative unit in Crimea after its liberation can be treated as a political provocation, a position of the authorities, and as an invitation to discuss this complex issue.

The main political parties predictably remained silent, apparently based on the data of sociological research. Refat Chubarov, the Chairman of the Mejlis, stated that during the final stage of the USSR’s existence in February 1991, autonomy was imposed on Ukraine to maintain influence over it, taking into account the ethnic composition of the peninsula’s inhabitants, among whom Russians constituted the majority. He noted that since 2014, the Ukrainian government has been paying significant attention to satisfying the interests of Crimean Tatars, which was not the case with the authorities of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. In other words, autonomy is, of course, undesirable, but… let it remain.

Meanwhile, social media has actively picked up the discussion on the topic, sometimes in a less ethnically tolerant manner. The range of opinions boils down to the following theses: transforming the Autonomous Republic of Crimea into a regular region, transforming autonomy into a national-cultural one, but still preserving autonomy. And finally, the traditionally Ukrainian motif — it’s not timely. There are virtually no voices in favor of maintaining the current status. Although it is noted in parallel: this question is related to changes in the Constitution, which is quite challenging not only due to the prohibition of amendments to the Fundamental Law during the war but also due to purely political considerations.

The question is actually very delicate, and it is timely. If we manage to regain Crimea, then the administrative package from the state must be prepared and thoroughly outlined.

What are the types of autonomy?

The concept of autonomy requires clear specification to avoid political manipulation. It can be a set of state measures aimed at supporting and preserving the culture of ethnic groups that are on the verge of extinction or assimilation. Such cultural-national autonomy is guaranteed by the state for Crimean Tatars, Crimean Greeks, and Karaites in the Law on Indigenous Peoples adopted in 2021. The law provides for the activities of self-governing bodies of these peoples, which are involved in the decision-making process at the state level.

Another matter is regional autonomy. It entails granting local authorities the right to legislate on issues that are specific to these territories due to geographical, ethnic, or historical characteristics. Regional autonomy is usually a precursor to the creation of a nation state. However, the realization of such a national idea through democratic means is practically impossible without the respective ethnic group having an absolute majority of the population. As history shows, such independence is mostly not achieved through peaceful means.

A completely different matter is an authoritarian state. Stalin had a strong inclination to pit nations against each other by creating national-territorial autonomies, sometimes even where the respective ethnic group constituted a minority. For instance, in the 1930s, there were several Russian national districts within the territory of Ukraine, primarily in the Sumy region, often in areas inhabited by Old Believers. By the way, this circumstance indicates that the rest of Ukraine, in ethnic and linguistic aspects, was predominantly Ukrainian, including the eastern and southern regions. Furthermore, an administrative-territorial unit of the regional level was created under the provocative name of the Moldavian Autonomous Republic, the majority of whose population at that time consisted of Ukrainians with the aim of expansionism in the eastern territories adjacent to the Dnister River. The pinnacle of cynicism can be considered the establishment of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Far East as an alternative to the formation of a fully-fledged Jewish state.

Risks of Crimea’s autonomy

Granting the Crimean region the status of the Autonomous Republic within Ukraine played a destructive role, initially in the preservation of the Soviet world and later, in the early 2000s, in the strengthening of the “Russian world.” Attempts by patriotic forces to defend the interests of the state collided with the unchanging notion that “we have autonomy, and we are special.” There was practically no Ukrainian authority in Crimea, and the administrative structures were subordinate to the regional government. Even law enforcement agencies, despite the formal hierarchy, effectively operated on the medieval principle of “the vassal of my vassal is not my vassal.” This problem, of course, existed throughout the territory of Ukraine, but in Crimea, it overlapped with the overt Russian factor. This played a role in 2014 when even employees of the Security Service of Ukraine switched to sides of the enemy.

See also: Just take it and make peace: how Ukrainians are being forced to adopt ‘pacifism’ and ‘objectivity’

The status of autonomy naturally has its normative reflection in the Constitution of Ukraine. The authority of the Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea includes the regulation of issues in nine sectors of economic and social life. None of them objectively requires separate regulation different from that of the rest of Ukraine. Regarding practical tasks assigned to the authorities of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, they include ensuring the functioning and development of the state and national languages and cultures in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, preservation and use of historical monuments, and participation in the development and implementation of state programs for the return of deported peoples.

The practical implementation of these tasks by the regional representative authority naturally had a clearly defined pro-Russian orientation. It was difficult to expect otherwise, considering the ethnic composition of the voters, the absolute majority of whom were Russians. In terms of the economy, the status of autonomy did not demonstrate any advantages. The budget of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea was always subsidized even though the expenditures for maintaining the apparatus of the Council of Ministers of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea were twice as high as the expenditures for maintaining similar functions of regional administrations, including those in financially self-sufficient regions such as Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk.

It should be noted that the ethnic composition of the peninsula’s inhabitants was never mono-ethnic. Russians, in particular, began to dominate Crimea only at the beginning of the 20th century due to migrations following the abolition of serfdom. They constituted more than half of Crimea’s population, including during the deportation of the Crimean Tatars.

However, as of today, Crimean Tatars constitute one-fifth of the population in Crimea. It is evident that they will not be able to obtain a majority in the regional representative body in the next few decades, even with a good level of birth rate. Forced eviction of Russians is only possible for those who relocated to the peninsula after 2014. The rest are Ukrainian citizens who currently live under occupation, regardless of their attitude towards the state of Ukraine. The inclusion of any privileges in Section 10 of the Constitution contradicts the fundamental principle of direct and equal election law and Article 24, which states that “there shall be no privileges or restrictions based on race, colour of skin, political, religious and other beliefs, sex, ethnic and social origin, property status, place of residence, linguistic or other characteristics.”

The post-occupation factor and the Law On Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine

It is evident that even after regaining control over Crimea, the regional governing body, regardless of its status, will be elected by voters who are predominantly Russians. However, this does not mean that they will unequivocally have a pro-Russian orientation. This is primarily because elections in a territory permeated with the poison of the “Russian world” will take place after a certain period of detoxification. There is hope that the Ukrainian authorities will rigorously sideline political forces that even indirectly appeal to sentiments associated with the aggressor country. And this goes beyond just mentioning the phenomenon of “good Russians.” Even references to Russian cultural products should be discontinued for reasons of national security,

Furthermore, the experience of resisting Russian aggression shows that political, rather than ethnic, Ukrainian identity is actively forming in Ukraine. Russia cannot effectively counter this because the ideological foundations of Pan-Russianism crumble under simple questions — where is the territory of the “true” Russians, distinct from the territories of other nations that populate the Russian Federation? The formation of a Russian diaspora as a basis for the sustainable preservation of Russian culture contradicts the spirit of expansionism that has been cultivated in Russian society for centuries. Therefore, there are reasons to believe that even ethnic Russians, years after the victory, will inevitably accept this reality and will not be active opponents of Ukraine.

The Law On Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine will better protect the interests of indigenous peoples than preserve regional autonomy in Crimea. Firstly, its effect is extraterritorial, meaning that advantages in cultural and educational development will be provided to representatives of indigenous peoples not only in Crimea itself but also in areas of their compact residence, such as the Kherson region. Secondly, guarantees for upholding these rights are provided not by a politically oriented regional governing body but directly by a state body of Ukraine, which is also obligated to adhere to international agreements regarding the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the implementation of the principle of national autonomy in its administrative-territorial form should include, among other things, the obligation to teach at least four languages in all schools in Crimea: Ukrainian as the state language, as well as the languages of indigenous peoples — Crimean Tatar, Crimean Greek, and Karaites. Undoubtedly, this will be perceived ambiguously even among the population of Crimea who are favorably disposed towards these nations.

See also: A source of non-knowledge: the history of Ukraine in European school textbooks

Why is it timely?

The issue of liquidating the Autonomous Republic of Crimea as an administrative-territorial unit needs to be addressed now, even before the end of the war and the liberation of the peninsula. This is primarily because the preparation of constitutional changes will require significant deliberation. It is not just about removing Section 10 from the Fundamental Law. Changes need to be made to Article 133, which pertains to the administrative-territorial structure of Ukraine, removing the list of regions embedded in the Constitution as a counterbalance to the special status of public authority in Crimea.

It is evident that references to the city of Sevastopol, which does not possess characteristics justifying its special status, will need to be removed. Additionally, the results of the administrative-territorial reform should be taken into account by introducing the concept of communities as administrative-territorial units into the Constitution. Furthermore, the consequences of power decentralization need to be considered by making changes to Section 11 Local Self-Government and reorganizing state governance on the territory through amendments, including Articles 118 and 119.

Secondly, the delay in making a political decision regarding the liquidation of autonomy is already having a negative impact on the configuration of public governance in Crimea. Districts have been formed based on politically motivated considerations rather than the need to ensure the effectiveness of territorial executive authorities. The ethnic factor, by the way, has also dominated not only in the decision-making process concerning Crimea but in the creation of Bolhrad and Berehove districts, which are functionally incapable and were also established to appease third parties.

The situation is even worse with the formation of the basic framework for local self-government in Crimea. While communities in the occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts were created in strict accordance with the methodology that has proven effective in other parts of Ukraine, the political elite is delaying the decision on Crimea, not having a clear answer to the question of the status of autonomy. Taking into account the ethnic factor as a dominant one will have negative consequences for the creation of capable communities, which in turn will signal the ineffectiveness of the state policy in Crimea.

And this is despite the fact that the application of the Law On Indigenous Peoples mainly concerns self-government bodies at the community level. Moreover, the reform of the basic level allows the interests of indigenous peoples to be taken into account to the fullest extent, primarily in starosta districts.

Again, the fact that the status of Crimea is brought in line with that of other regions of Ukraine will send a clear signal to the international community: Ukraine will no longer allow anyone — neither its eastern enemies, nor its southern neutrals, nor its western allies — to play at federalism and separatism.

And finally, the Ministry of Reintegration and other state bodies have already begun to form reserves of educators, law enforcement officers, and civil servants who will be advocates of the Ukrainian idea. These patriotically inclined enthusiasts require assurance that both the state and self-governing authorities in Crimea will truly be Ukrainian, and this will only become inevitable if the umbilical cord connecting the peninsula to Russia in the form of autonomy is cut. Ukrainian soldiers who will liberate Crimea must be confident that the state will complete their mission of expelling the Russian menace not only from the territory but also from the spiritual world of Ukraine.

The liquidation of the Crimean autonomy will certainly not solve all the integration issues of Crimea into the Ukrainian space, but at least it will open up prospects.

Originally posted by Yuriy Hanushchak on Zn.ua. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

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