The categorical rejection of the law on indigenous peoples by Medvechuk’s “Opposition Platform for Life” party and other pro-Russian entities and media provoked amazement given their obviously nonsensical objections over the law’s supposed discrimination against Russians, Moldovans, Hungarians and other supposedly indigenous peoples of Ukraine whom the law does not and cannot mention because these ethnic communities in no way fulfill the definition of indigenous peoples either under Ukrainian or international law. However, everything becomes clear when these reactions and arguments are viewed in the broader context and timeline of the Russian reaction. It then becomes obvious that Russian proxies in Ukraine almost literally copy the talking points of Russia’s anti-Ukrainian propaganda.
The draft law appeared on the site of the Verkhovna Rada on 19 May, 2021. However, the first aggrieved Russian reaction came only on 8 June. This lengthy interlude suggests a careful preparation and coordination of a plan of attack.
On 8 June, the Russian Duma passed a unanimous resolution calling the draft law as “an offence against the historical memory” because Russians – together with Belarusians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, etc. - were not listed as indigenous peoples. The very fact of this legislative initiative by the president of Ukraine was called a “a glaring provocation aimed at sharpening tensions and conflicts both within Ukraine and abroad.” Duma deputy Kostyantyn Zatulin, who presented the draft of the resolution, compared Ukraine to “the Third Reich or modern Latvia and Estonia.” He revealed that there would be an appeal to the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the parliaments of European Union member states urging them to condemn the draft law. ‘Concern’ was voiced about “the most serious of consequences for the very existence of Ukraine as a state.” That same day, foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused Ukraine of “reinforcing nationalistic and neofascist positions.”
Then, on 9 June, President Putin, in an interview with the Russia-24 channel, offered the following: “The division [of the population] into indigenous, first- and second-class people smacks of the theory and practice of Nazi Germany. What about people with mixed blood? Zelenskiy himself is a Jew by nationality…” No less strange is Putin’s conviction that there is no distinction between indigenous and ‘non-indigenous’ peoples either in international law or in the legislation of civilized countries.
Ukrainian officials and experts spent the next few days vigorously proving the absurdity of such accusations. Notably, they received support from Turkey - an important partner of both Ukraine and Russia. During a meeting with deputies from the Verkhovna Rada the Speaker of the Turkish parliament, Mustafa Sentop, declared that Turkey assigns great significance to the legislative initiative to grant the Crimean Tatars the status of an indigenous people of Ukraine and that similar steps by the legislature would without doubt increase the level of international support for Kyiv’s international initiatives such as the “Crimean Platform.”
On 16 June, the Rada’s profile committee unanimously recommended that the parliament adopt the law on indigenous peoples in one vote in its entirety. During his 30 June “Hotline” appearance, President Putin returned to the theme of the Ukrainian draft law. He was again indignant that Ukrainian Russians had not been defined as an indigenous people and compared the prospective passage of the law to “the use of a weapon of mass destruction.” The following day - the very day the Verkhovna Rada passed the law – Russia voiced its opposition at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (https://pace.coe.int/en/files/29376/html). The declaration was signed by 28 delegates. Eighteen of them were Russians supported by four Serbs, and two each from Hungary, Armenia and Moldova. It should be noted that this declaration and proposal regarding PACE resolution was not debated and expressed only the views of the signatories.
On 8 July, the law of indigenous peoples was signed by the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada, Dmytro Razumkov, and sent to the president for his signature. Four days later, on 12 July, the Kremlin homepage posted an extensive article by President Putin in two languages - Russian and (for the first time) Ukrainian – “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” The piece was simply an aggregation of all of the principal arguments of Russian propaganda about “a single nation,” that Ukraine was “an anti-Russian project of the West,” “external rule” and much more. Since the article has been analyzed in a broad spectrum of publications it would be redundant to focus on its arguments. It should, however, be noted that it contained a reference to the law on indigenous peoples – a sure sign that the law was still giving the Russian president no respite.
Such an excessive amount of attention to this piece of legislation would be hard to understand without the assumption that behind this disproportionate reaction there lies a deep, almost panicked fear over the declared intention to provide the indigenous peoples of Crimea – first and foremost the Crimean Tatars – the inherent right to self-determination on their historical territory. The move negates every Russian pretension that Crimea is “Russian from time immemorial.” It enhances Ukraine’s position and the prospects for the de-occupation of the Crimean peninsula.
Such a conclusion would explain the total absence in the Russian reaction of any mention of the communities recognized in the law as well as any reference to its own legislation “On the Not Numerous Indigenous Peoples of Russia.” These groups exist in genuinely terrible conditions and face total extinction as a result of accelerated assimilation, environmental catastrophes and other negative factors. (See for example: https://idpo.org.ua/analitics/4175-n-belicer-komentar-do-zakonoproektu-pro-korinni-narodi-ukra%d1%97ni.html and http://khpg.org/en/1608809282?fbclid=IwAR2nz09nRw6Aemba6QvVH6ttnXOy4w79ovIiGl1mvb6OTEJqrpQRIx03Uus)
Despite all of the positives surrounding the passage of the law on the indigenous peoples of Ukraine, it should be viewed only as an initial step towards the creation of an integral set of legislation that would substantiate the status of the Crimean Tatar nation, amend Section X of the Ukrainian constitution and update the law on national minorities. Previous experience shows that any delay in adopting such laws can have serious negative consequences.
A very much needed component of legal package is a law ratifying the ILO Convention № 169 “On Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries” – the only legally binding document in the sphere of indigenous peoples’ rights (in contrast to the UN Declaration which is a “soft law” document not requiring ratification). These kinds of recommendations were urged on several occasions by international monitoring bodies. (See, for example, http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/ecri/Country-by-country/Ukraine/UKR-CbC-IV-2012-006-ENG.pdf). In addition, discussions should be held on the desirability of revisiting comprehensive documents such as the concept on Ukrainian ethno-national policy that would define and review in detail every ethnic entity within Ukrainian society and their rights and obligations.
A further important development in this sphere would be a legislative provision for changing the status for de-occupied Crimea from the “Administrative and Territorial Autonomous Republic of Crimea” to “Crimean Tatar National-Territorial Autonomy” as the legitimate mechanism for the realization of the right to self-determination. Such a step is actually anticipated by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to which Ukraine acceded in May 2014.
There is also one other significant aspect to creating a Crimean Tatar autonomy in Crimea and it is tied to the attempts to grant autonomy to the currently occupied areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Comparing the situation in Crimea where there is a legitimate subject with the right to self-determination with those occupied territories – where there is no such subject – negates any legal argument in support of a “special status” or the granting of autonomous status to any de-occupied area of Donbas. That is why the proposed change in name and status for Crimea would fully comply not only with the aspirations of the Crimean Tatar nation (something that would also strengthen its pro-Ukrainian sentiments) but also with Ukrainian national interests.
Finally, there is an urgent need to work on explaining the basic points and nuances of national and international legislation regarding the rights of indigenous peoples and, specifically, how these rights differ from those of other ethnic entities. The target groups should include journalists who frequently report inaccurately on these issues and misinterpret them as well as social activists and even legislators. This work needs to take place both in Ukraine and at the international level, and begin - preferably - in the run-up to August’s “Crimean Platform” summit.