Fears have been growing recently that the situation in Crimea is slowly declining as a priority or even disappearing completely as an international – and even Ukrainian – policy concern across a whole range of security, socio-economic, humanitarian and informational issues.
These fears were further stoked by the absence of any reference to the matter of de-occupation of Crimea in the new government program (which has yet to be approved by the Rada). Nor was it mentioned in a series of key messages issued by Ukrainian leaders in the form of, for example, President Zelensky’s recent New York Times op-ed (“I Expected War. I Didn’t Expect Trump’s Impeachment or a Pandemic,” May 20, 2020), which almost coincided with this year’s May 18 anniversary of the tragic deportation of the Crimean Tatar nation in 1944.
In contrast to this negative trend there is a growing awareness within both official circles and civil society of the need for an international platform for discussing Crimea. Such a step is all the more necessary because the Minsk process deals only with Donbas and any attempt to raise the issue of Crimea’s occupation and attempted annexation is immediately rejected by the Russian representatives to the point of threatening a walk-out. Efforts to include strategic questions on the de-occupation of Crimea in the Normandy format have been equally unsuccessful.
Since Moscow considers the question of Crimea to be closed, the chances of including Russia in a new negotiating format are minimal. But this should not be a reason to abandon such efforts. This point was made in January this year by Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s then deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. And Anton Korynevych, the Ukrainian president’s permanent representative in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, also argued that “We need an international format for negotiations on Crimea even without Russia’s participation and we’re prepared to work towards this. These efforts will attract the desired international attention to the question of Crimea’s occupation and will [help] put pressure on Russia as the occupying power.” A similar view was expressed by the deputy head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, Ilmi Umerov, who added that negotiations on Crimea without a Russian participation might even be more constructive.
The western signatories to the Budapest Memorandum – the United States and United Kingdom – are the most preferable participants in any “Crimean Format.” The leading participants in the Normandy Format – France and Germany – could also join with the consent of the initiators. This idea seems all the more timely in view of Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s call for the creation of an international platform on Crimea during a June 2 joint press conference in Berlin with his German colleague, Haiko Maas.
Because these processes require long-term diplomatic and political commitment, the work should begin immediately. This will require moving from general discussions to the creation of a clear plan of action and specific proposals that Ukraine would then present to its international partners – not least regarding the venue.
In this context it’s worth noting the proposal raised by the leader of the Crimean Tatars and Verkhovna Rada deputy, Mustafa Djemilev, in June 2019 when he expressed the idea that “an Istanbul Format could be created. [President] Erdogan has a close relationship with Putin while Turkey is a member of NATO… As regards the Turkish side, they’ve already expressed their willingness. We’ve spoken with the Turkish foreign minister and he said "Please, we’re more than happy [to help]. But we need an official request from the Ukrainian side.” This kind of approach has several advantages over any alternatives.
Firstly, President Erdogan is personally interested in increasing his country’s role in resolving a whole series of geopolitical and security problems that have become more acute since the occupation of Crimea. Primarily, these arose with the strengthening of Russia’s position in the Azov-Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea regions as a result of the intensive militarization of occupied Crimea. The dominance of the Russian Black Sea Fleet has effectively denied Turkey a regional leadership role.
Secondly, Turkey has a very large Crimean Tatar diaspora whose electoral moods play an important role in elections. Although Turkey provides assistance to displaced Crimean Tatars on ‘mainland’ Ukraine, this is insufficient because representatives of the diaspora in Turkey have on more than one occasion called for more active measures in support of the rights of Crimean Tatars in Crimea itself. Playing a more active role could secure the support of an important constituency for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party.
Thirdly, it would be more difficult for Putin to turn down Erdogan than anyone else. This assumption is based on the latest turn of events in the Middle East and North Africa relating to the bloody civil wars in Syria and Libya where Russia and Turkey are on opposite sides in lengthy armed conflicts, and where Turkey’s key role in supporting militarily the UN-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli did not meet with the usual Russian protests.
Finally, realizing such a scenario brings additional bonuses. Working together in a new manner on the de-occupation of Crimea and to redress the brutal violation of the post WW2 international order might help Turkey improve relations with its NATO partners. These ties have undergone serious strains not least because of Turkey’s ‘pragmatic’ efforts to build a strategic partnership simultaneously with Russia and the West. A closer relationship between Turkey and Russia poses a serious challenge to Ukraine.
Nevertheless, there are clear signs that Erdogan and his government are trying to reach an understanding with their NATO allies, primarily the US and the countries of the EU. Despite the strained US-Turkey relations – over, for example, the Turkish acquisition of the Russian S-400 anti-missile defense system, the presence in the US of a Turkish dissident Mr. Erdogan holds responsible for the failed 2016 coup, and the Kurdish question in Syria – there are regular communications between the authorities and business circles of both countries, including a Turkish-US business council initiative promoting Turkey as a trading alternative to China. And after a June 9 phone call between the two presidents, Erdogan announced that “a new era can begin between the United States and Turkey.”
For these reasons a Ukrainian initiative has a good chance of gaining Turkish support and providing additional impetus to relations between Kyiv and Ankara. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this bilateral relationship for Ukraine, especially in the security sphere – including the joint development of new generation weapons such as drones.
What can Ukraine offer its partners through an international platform on Crimea? Firstly, an integral strategy for the de-occupation of the peninsula. Although some specific details could not be publicized, the conceptual basis and the means and methods for de-occupation must be open for the broadest discussion.
An important component of the strategy as well as its promotion is the identification of the status of a de-occupied Crimea within the Ukrainian state. Following the official designation of the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people of Crimea in 2014 it would make sense to reformat the Autonomous Republic of Crimea into a legally enshrined Crimean Tatar National-Territorial Autonomy. This would be an effective mechanism for providing the indigenous people with the collective right to self-determination on the basis of the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people which Ukraine officially joined in May 2014. However, reaching social consensus over this kind of vision for the future of Crimea will only be possible through a sustained education campaign and by elevating the level of awareness of existing international norms and best practices among Ukrainian legislators.
Another batch of questions relates to systematic Russian violations of international humanitarian law arising from the 4th Geneva Convention (1949) on the protection of civilian populations in time of war. Numerous reports testify to growing violations of this Convention and other international agreements but there has been no comprehensive analysis of these violations. This should be done by Ukraine with a view to using the information to prepare a possible case against Russia at the UN International Court of Justice.
Finally, another important item on any agenda would be the international sanctions regime introduced in 2014 after Russia’s occupation of Crimea. In this context Ukraine’s role would not simply be limited to monitoring its implementation (and providing reasons for further measures) but also to developing mechanisms for punishing any violations, addressing Russia’s failure to comply with UN Court rulings and reporting further human rights violations in Crimea.
Natalya Belitser is Senior Researcher at The Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy, Kyiv, a partner organization of the US-Ukraine Foundation.
The original Ukrainian version of this article is available here.
Cover photo source: The Embassy of Ukraine in the USA
June 26 is the Day of the Crimean Tatar National Flag