How did Ukraine lose Crimea?

How did Ukraine lose Crimea?

The events of 2014 in Ukraine happened very quickly and dynamically: the beating of students, the Revolution of Dignity, the Heavenly Hundred Heroes, and then the "little green men" (Russian soldiers who were masked and wore unmarked uniforms at the outbreak of the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian war — ed.), the illegal referendum, and the word "annexation". It felt like something you had always taken for granted but never paid enough attention to was being taken away from you.

The topic of Ukraine's relations with Crimea before 2014 is quite painful and still not sufficiently covered in the Ukrainian information space. The question remains: when did Ukraine lose Crimea — in 2014 or long before? 

At the same time, the issue of Crimea and the Crimean Tatars has generated a lot of opinions and discussions in recent years. Many people still do not understand the position of the people of Crimea, and any opportunity to give them subjectivity is perceived as a threat. Often, such conclusions are based on ignorance of the history of Crimea and the Crimean Tatar people and the influence of propaganda spread by Russia over the years. However, it is vital now to understand the historical context of Crimea and to analyse past events to avoid similar problems.

Crimea and Ukraine after the restoration of independence

From 1991 to 2014, there was very little Ukrainian in Crimea. Instead, everything was Russian: Russian was the only language spoken on the peninsula, and documents, signs and café menus were also in Russian. This made it extremely difficult to preserve Ukrainian identity in Crimea.

When Ukraine declared its independence, the fate of Crimea was an important and complex issue. This was especially so because shortly before the declaration of independence, a referendum was held in Crimea to reinstate the quasi-autonomy — national and territorial autonomy — of the pro-Russian Communist Party elite. Accordingly, the landmine of Soviet rule was evident from 1991 to 2014.

The years 1991-1995, when Crimea was formally part of Ukraine, were more difficult. However, the situation gradually improved, albeit slowly. Thus, since the beginning of the noughties, we can say that Crimea has been Ukraine.

What has Ukraine done to develop Crimean Tatar culture before and after 2014?

Historian Martin Kysly believes that even after 2014, Crimea and the Crimean Tatars became part of the public political discourse. Unfortunately, the statements about improving their situation did not go beyond declarations. This is confirmed by the fact that the law on indigenous peoples was not adopted in 2014-15 but only in 2021 and that constitutional amendments were not made in due time, although the work was completed long ago. 

Even though the Ukrainian government appears not to have paid sufficient attention to the Crimean issue before 2014, it cannot be said that Ukraine's actions have only harmed or had no impact on the peninsula's inhabitants. For example, it was important to resolve the issue of Ukrainian citizenship for Crimean Tatars who returned from exile after 1991. 

One of the most critical problems remained that all initiatives of the Kyiv authorities, even constructive ones, were passed on to politicians in Crimea and faded away at the republican level. 

The influence of Russian propaganda

Due to the strong influence of Russian propaganda, many people still find it challenging to understand the state and culture to which Crimea historically belongs. 

"I had no idea that Crimea was Russian and "given" to Ukraine. For me, Crimea is Crimean Tatar, mentally speaking," says Najie Ametova.  

If we want to see the close ties between Crimea and Ukraine, it is enough to remember 1991, when, before the collapse of the USSR, the Crimean Tatar people were faced with the question of whether to be with Ukraine or with Russia. Although historically, the Crimean Tatar national movement's contacts with Moscow dissidents were much closer than those with Kyiv dissidents, the Crimean Tatars supported Ukraine's sovereignty. They saw their future as part of this state.

What is the difference between the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the national autonomy of the Crimean Tatars?

The question of Crimea's status after de-occupation is relevant at the moment. Most Ukrainians still do not fully understand the situation's complexity and the Crimean Tatars' position.

The prevailing opinion is that the Crimean Tatars have already had their national autonomy in Crimea since 1991 and that they have, so to speak, squandered it and, therefore, no longer have the right to it. Obviously, for those Ukrainians who have never been to Crimea, not even on holiday, and who are generally far removed from this territory and its perceptions, Crimea has always been Crimean Tatar.

It is important to understand the difference between the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the national autonomy of the Crimean Tatars. The Autonomous Republic of Crimea was created to preserve the status quo and the power of the Crimean Communist Party elite. Until 2014, Crimea was effectively the preserve of this post-Soviet political elite, and the role of Crimean Tatars in the political life of the peninsula was negligible. 

What should Ukraine do now for the Crimean Tatars?

Since 1991, Crimean Tatars in Crimea have continued to fight for the right to national Crimean Tatar schools and the opportunity to study their mother tongue. In the 2000s, such schools began to appear, but Crimean Tatar was taught as an optional subject. This meant that the language and culture were not promoted. The preservation of the Crimean Tatar language was down to parents, who taught their children and spoke the language in the family. The role of the state was invisible. 

After 2014, the Ukrainian authorities took specific steps to preserve Crimean Tatar culture, but this is not enough, says Najie Ametova. At the same time, even before the full-scale invasion, Ukrainian culture itself needed protection from the state, and many things still need to be addressed.  

Now, it is essential to keep the Crimean Tatars in the Ukrainian ideological space so that they can feel part of Ukraine, regardless of where they live. Ukrainians should pay attention to Crimea and Crimean Tatars. Even if it is not enough now, what has been done since 2014 should not be underestimated. Even if it is slow, the work is ongoing.