On Feb. 27, 2014, less than a month after the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russian troops stormed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and took control of the regional Parliament. Two weeks later, on March 16, Russian forces administered a referendum not recognized under the Ukrainian Constitution. Despite a 32.4 percent turnout rate, the Kremlin claimed that an abnormally high percentage of yes votes—96.6 percent—warranted annexation.
Control of Crimea
On March 21, 2014, Putin declared Crimea an administrative entity of Russia. The United Nations challenged his declaration in a resolution passed on March 27, affirming the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the importance of preserving human rights in Crimea.
Ethnic divisions and political disagreements have fueled tensions in Crimea. The Kremlin claims that the peninsula has historically belonged to Russia, yet history shows that different empires—from the Roman to the Ottoman Empires— have controlled Crimea over the years.
The Kremlin also argues that Nikita Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 illegitimately, even though the decision was made collectively by the Soviet political bodies, and the constitutions of Ukraine and Russia were amended to reflect the transfer of territory.
Human Rights In Crimea
Russian authorities have committed a wide range of human rights abuses in their effort to assert control over the peninsula. A 2018 Freedom House report gave Crimea a 7/7 (the lowest) ranking on political rights and civil liberties, a 6.5/7 for its freedom rating as well as a press freedom status of “not free.”
The situation regarding human rights in Crimea is riddled with harassment of political opponents, violence against ethnic minorities and severe restrictions on the freedom of speech, assembly and religion.
- Imposition of Citizenship: Even though imposing citizenship on an occupied territory’s inhabitants is forbidden under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Russian authorities have instituted a ruthless “Russianization” campaign in Crimea; that is, they have coerced Crimeans into renouncing their Ukrainian citizenship and obtaining Russian passports.
The punishments for rejecting Russian citizenship are severe. A State Department report discovered that authorities poured sunflower oil over the personal belongings of a female detainee who refused a Russian passport. Biologist Guriy Kornilov was fired from his position at the Nikitinsky Botanical Gardens after he did the same. At best, individuals who reject citizenship receive no access to education and healthcare. At worst, they get deported from Crimea.
- A Ban on Assembly: Prosecutors wield Russia’s anti-extremism statutes, supposedly intended for terrorist groups, against independent political organizations. In a crackdown on the freedom of assembly, a Crimean prosecutor ordered a ban the Mejlis, the representative body of the Crimean Tatar people, in February 2016, calling to have the group labeled as an extremist organization.Ilmi Umerov, a Mejlis official, was sentenced to two years in prison on separatism charges, and his lawyer was detained separately. In April 2017, The International Court of Justice criticized Russia’s dissolution of the Mejlis, ordering Russia to “conserve its representative institutions.” Even so, the Mejlis has remained banned.
- Harassment of Opponents: A climate of intimidation and fear has effectively suppressed speech and degraded human rights in Crimea with opposition leaders being subject to arbitrary arrests, torture, detentions and extrajudicial executions. In July 2017, a Crimean Tatar man received a year and three months in prison for a series of Facebook posts critical of the occupation.Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov, who criticized Russia’s annexation of Crimea, was imprisoned in 2015. The Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, encourages Crimeans to report individuals who oppose the occupation, breeding an atmosphere of paranoia. Overall, activists estimated that 57 Crimean opposition figures have been jailed as of 2017.
- Media Freedom: Since a 2015 re-registration process, the number of media outlets in Crimea has been reduced by more than 90 percent. Crimeans no longer have access to Ukrainian television, and outlets with a pro-Ukrainian stance, as well as those serving the Tatar community must now operate underground. Radio Liberty journalist Mykola Semena received a two-year ban on journalistic activity after lamenting the annexation of Crimea.
- Religious Freedom: Russian authorities have forced religious groups to re-register, which has in turn allowed officials to eliminate organizations that do not support The Russian Orthodox Church. In 2014, there were 1,400 registered religious groups; as of September 2017, that number has dropped down to 818. All 22 Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations have been deregistered, as have mosques associated with Crimean Tatars. Authorities have also confiscated the property of The Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
- Property Rights: In addition to confiscating the land of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, authorities have used courts to legitimize the seizure of 3,800 plots of land. These plots are redistributed to pro-Russian entities.
- Discrimination: Russian authorities frequently harass Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, both of whom are minorities on the peninsula. Between the occupation in 2014 and September 2017, more than 150 raids have been conducted, the majority targeting these minorities, with the pretext of searching for weapons, drugs or “extremist literature.”Authorities have gone as far as to censor songs by Ukrainian singers on radio stations and reduce the number of Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian language classes in schools. Crimean Tatars can no longer speak their language in public or in the workplace, nor are they allowed to celebrate their national holidays.
What is Being Done To Alleviate the Crisis?
The United Nations has been vocal about its concern over the deterioration of human rights in Crimea. In November 2017, 71 member states in The U.N. General Assembly Third Committee approved a resolution that condemned Russia’s human rights violations, including its discrimination against Crimean Tatars.
Non-governmental organizations have also come to the aid of Crimea. In 2017 alone, The Red Cross donated medical items to 145 healthcare facilities, sent over 375,000 food parcels to 86,000 people, delivered 11,000 metric tons of humanitarian aid and helped release 306 conflict-related detainees.
Even though these figures encompass all of Ukraine, aid was concentrated in the conflict-torn areas of eastern Ukraine and Crimea. While The Red Cross’ contributions serve to improve human rights in Crimea in the short term, Russia will need to restore the rule of law as well as begin protecting political and civil liberties to help the peninsula recover from the crisis of 2014.
– Mark Blekherman