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The Occu­pa­tion of Crimea – a Chal­lenge for the Global Order

As 2021 draws to a close, we look back on this year’s impor­tant events. Among them is the Crimea Plat­form, which was launched in August at Ukraine’s ini­tia­tive to shore up support for the country’s efforts to return the Russian-occu­pied penin­sula. Olha Skryp­nyk, the Coor­di­na­tor of the Group for Human Rights and Inter­na­tional Human­i­tar­ian Law of the Platform’s Expert Network, explains its relevance.

The inau­gural summit of the Crimea Plat­form on 23 August in Kyiv was the first inter­na­tional polit­i­cal event focused on the Black Sea penin­sula since its Russian occu­pa­tion began in 2014. The plat­form is a new inter­na­tional coor­di­na­tion and con­sul­ta­tion format that is sup­ported by 47 coun­tries and inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tions. Its launch was attended by 15 heads of state and gov­ern­ments, two speak­ers of par­lia­ments, 14 min­is­ters as well as the heads of insti­tu­tions of the Euro­pean Union, the Sec­re­taries-General of the Council of Europe and the GUAM Orga­ni­za­tion for Democ­racy and Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment, as well as the Deputy Sec­re­tary-General of NATO.

This event may become an actual his­tor­i­cal mile­stone because it is the first insti­tu­tional format to find mech­a­nisms for the de-occu­pa­tion of Crimea and the pro­tec­tion of human rights as well as to create pos­si­ble plat­forms for nego­ti­a­tions on Crimea, includ­ing the release of Ukraini­ans impris­oned by Russia for polit­i­cal reasons.

During the past almost eight years, many impor­tant doc­u­ments have been adopted: res­o­lu­tions of the UN General Assem­bly, PACE, EU, and OSCE; major law­suits against Russia in the context of a legal war with the aggres­sor country have been ini­ti­ated. At the same time, there were no steady and con­sis­tently func­tion­ing inter­na­tional polit­i­cal formats. The Nor­mandy format — meet­ings of Ukraine, Germany, France, and Russia — launched in 2014, does not cover issues related to the occu­pa­tion of Crimea. Sim­i­larly, the Minsk agree­ments refer exclu­sively to the armed con­flict in the Donbas.

In 2019, Ukrain­ian Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Zelen­skyy made an attempt to raise the issue of Crimea during the meeting of the “Nor­mandy Quartet ” in Paris, but there were no spe­cific talks on this subject. Zelen­sky said at the time: “No one in the ‘Nor­mandy Format’ wants to talk about Crimea, espe­cially Russia.” Accord­ing to many experts, in fact, not only Russia does not want to talk about Crimea in this format, Germany, and France also uses it only to raise the issue of resolv­ing the con­flict in eastern Ukraine.

Prob­a­bly the only pub­licly known nego­ti­a­tions between Ukraine and Russia on Crimea was for the so-called big exchange in Sep­tem­ber 2019, when 35 Ukrain­ian cit­i­zens ille­gally detained by Russian author­i­ties were released.¹ Among them were eleven polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, includ­ing Crimeans Oleh Sentsov, Olek­sandr Kolchenko, Volodymyr Balukh, and Crimean Tatar Edem Bekirov, as well as 24 Ukrain­ian navy ser­vice­men cap­tured by Russia after the attack on Ukrain­ian ships in the Kerch Strait on 25 Novem­ber 2018.²

However, these ad hoc nego­ti­a­tions focused exclu­sively on releas­ing indi­vid­u­als, includ­ing for the first time those who had been impris­oned in occu­pied Crimea. But this had no impact on the issue of the peninsula’s de-occu­pa­tion and did not lead to any other polit­i­cal dia­logue. More­over, after the “big exchange” in 2019, there have been no other exchanges or releases of Crimeans, though Russia has impris­oned at least 45 other people within polit­i­cally moti­vated crim­i­nal cases in Crimea since.

The system of polit­i­cally moti­vated per­se­cu­tion of Crimean res­i­dents is one of the ter­ri­ble con­se­quences of the peninsula’s occu­pa­tion. Since 2014, the Russian occu­pa­tion author­i­ties have been per­se­cut­ing both those who did not support the occu­pa­tion and those who have been advo­cat­ing to pre­serve the Ukrain­ian and Crimean Tatar lan­guages, culture, iden­tity, to protect freedom of speech and expres­sion. More than 100 Ukrain­ian nation­als are kept in places of deten­tion not for crimes, but for their polit­i­cal posi­tion, jour­nal­is­tic, or human rights activ­i­ties. This system of polit­i­cally moti­vated per­se­cu­tion includes the entire gov­ern­ment ver­ti­cal of law enforce­ment agen­cies, secu­rity bodies, courts, and illegal armed units sup­ported by the Russian author­i­ties. Torture has become a common prac­tice in such cases, forcing the victims to incrim­i­nate them­selves and agree on record­ing staged “con­fes­sional” videos, which are then broad­cast by the Russian FSB through con­trolled media. Tellingly, no Russian FSB agents or police­men have ever been pros­e­cuted for tor­tur­ing Ukrain­ian citizens.³

Almost all reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions, except the Russian Ortho­dox Church, are subject to per­se­cu­tion or various forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion. Even Jehovah’s Wit­nesses are now being sent to prison colonies. In 2020, the first sen­tences against Jehovah’s Wit­nesses, whose reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions were declared ‘extrem­ist’ in the Russian Fed­er­a­tion in 2017, were passed. They were sen­tenced to 6 years impris­on­ment only for their reli­gious views.

One more strate­gi­cally sig­nif­i­cant issue is the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of Crimea, which is also man­i­fested in the human­i­tar­ian dimen­sion. This means mil­i­ta­riz­ing the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, chang­ing the demo­graphic com­po­si­tion, impos­ing Russian cit­i­zen­ship and infor­ma­tion iso­la­tion, and break­ing local Ukrain­ian cit­i­zens’ socio-cul­tural ties with the rest of Ukraine.

A study of the sit­u­a­tion shows that the occu­pa­tion author­i­ties invest most of their resources for mil­i­ta­riz­ing youth and chil­dren. By now the entire edu­ca­tion system, which covers more than 200,000 chil­dren, focuses on raising them exclu­sively in a Russian iden­tity context, while struc­turally pre­vent­ing the preser­va­tion or devel­op­ment of other iden­ti­ties like Ukrain­ian and Crimean Tatar. Teach­ing pri­or­i­ties are the cult of war and weapons as opposed to demo­c­ra­tic values and tol­er­ance. A lot of state money is being spent by Russia for this purpose, holding in-school and out-of-school cam­paigns. More­over, the number of edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tions, where chil­dren are taught mil­i­tary basics and encour­aged to later join the Russian armed forces, is con­stantly growing. If young men reject mil­i­tary service, they risk crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion that might result in imprisonment.

All this is going on while Russia is strength­en­ing its mil­i­tary pres­ence in Crimea by ille­gally deploy­ing more troops and increas­ing the number of mil­i­tary bases after having ousted the Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary from its bases in 2014. This is a real threat to the secu­rity of the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Thus, the impli­ca­tions and chal­lenges of Crimea’s occu­pa­tion are beyond just the “Ukraine — Russia Con­flict”. Only a con­sol­i­dated inter­na­tional effort can change the sit­u­a­tion, and the Crimea Plat­form summit has proven that such con­sol­i­da­tion is pos­si­ble, even in the face of new global chal­lenges like the Covid pan­demic and migration.

Aware of this, Ukraine in 2020 ini­ti­ated the estab­lish­ment of the Crimea Plat­form, the first inter­na­tional format that deals with the occu­pied penin­sula. The format was devel­oped by the Ukrain­ian Min­istry of Foreign Affairs to imple­ment an ini­tia­tive of Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Zelensky.

The Plat­form has five main goals:

  1. Inten­si­fy­ing the inter­na­tional policy on non-recog­ni­tion of the Russian Fed­er­a­tion attempt to annex Crimea
  2. Mon­i­tor­ing and coor­di­na­tion of inter­na­tional sanctions
  3. Coun­ter­act­ing human rights vio­la­tions and inter­na­tional human­i­tar­ian law norms
  4. Secur­ing safety and freedom of nav­i­ga­tion in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov
  5. Recov­er­ing from the eco­nomic and envi­ron­men­tal impacts of the penin­sula occupation.

In all these aspects, the Crimea Plat­form acts in three dimen­sions: gov­ern­men­tal, par­lia­men­tary, and expert.

At the gov­ern­men­tal level, the major event was the Crimea Plat­form Inau­gural Summit in Kyiv, which fea­tured rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Albania, Aus­tralia, Austria, Belgium, Bul­garia, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Repub­lic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Japan, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithua­nia, Lux­em­bourg, Malta, Moldova, Mon­tene­gro, the Nether­lands, New Zealand, Norway, North­ern Mace­do­nia, Poland, Por­tu­gal, Romania, Slo­va­kia, Slove­nia, Spain, Sweden, Switzer­land, Turkey, the USA, and the EU, NATO, Council of Europe and GUAM.

As a result, par­tic­i­pants signed a Joint Dec­la­ra­tion, that approves the platform’s estab­lish­ment and its aim to peace­fully end Russia’s tem­po­rary occu­pa­tion of the Autonomous Repub­lic of Crimea and the city of Sev­astopol and to restore Ukraine’s control over this ter­ri­tory in full accor­dance with inter­na­tional law. The plat­form par­tic­i­pants’ coop­er­a­tion is also aimed at address­ing emerg­ing chal­lenges and hybrid threats result­ing from the ongoing mil­i­ta­riza­tion of Crimea.

At the par­lia­ment level, the Crimea Plat­form Inter-Group Asso­ci­a­tion was estab­lished. It started its activ­i­ties in Decem­ber 2020 and has been acting through inter-par­lia­men­tary friend­ship groups and par­lia­men­tary assem­blies of inter­na­tional organizations.

On 23 August, the day of the Summit, the Ukrain­ian Par­lia­ment, the Verk­hovna Rada, held an extra­or­di­nary session ded­i­cated to the Crimea Plat­form that was attended also by MPs from other coun­tries. At this session, the Rada adopted a Res­o­lu­tion that calls on the UN, the Par­lia­men­tary Assem­bly of the Council of Europe, the OSCE Par­lia­men­tary Assem­bly, the NATO Par­lia­men­tary Assem­bly, the BSEC Par­lia­men­tary Assem­bly, the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, foreign gov­ern­ments, and par­lia­ments to inten­sify inter­na­tional coop­er­a­tion within the Crimea Plat­form to counter the Russian Federation’s aggression.⁶ Inter­na­tional coop­er­a­tion formats on issues related to the Plat­form have been estab­lished with some coun­tries — for instance, members of the Latvian Saeima have set up a group in their parliament.

The expert dimen­sion of the plat­form is pri­mar­ily based on its Expert Network, whose devel­op­ment began in March 2021. That network was estab­lished as a com­mu­nity of Ukrain­ian and foreign experts, non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, ini­tia­tives, asso­ci­a­tions, think tanks, and sci­en­tific insti­tu­tions, whose activ­i­ties con­tribute to achiev­ing the Platform’s main goals.

The Expert Network offi­cially began its work on 6 August, when its Inau­gural Forum was held in Kyiv.⁷ Based on the Forum’s out­comes, the Network’s activ­i­ties are now struc­tured into seven groups: non-recog­ni­tion policy and sanc­tions; human rights and inter­na­tional human­i­tar­ian law; secu­rity, economy and envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, cul­tural her­itage of Crimea; human­i­tar­ian policy; restora­tion of the rights of indige­nous peoples as an instru­ment of de-occu­pa­tion of Crimea.

Recent events in Crimea have only high­lighted the urgent need to con­sol­i­date inter­na­tional support and the Crimea Platform’s joint response to gross and con­sis­tent human rights vio­la­tions, which have resulted in the large-scale and sys­temic polit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion of the occu­pied peninsula’s res­i­dents. On 3–4 Sep­tem­ber, FSB agents detained Nariman Dzhe­lial, the first deputy of the Mejlis of Crimean Tatar People (the rep­re­sen­ta­tive body of the Crimean indige­nous people), and the broth­ers Aziz and Asan Akhte­mov. They were accused of “sab­o­tage” — damage to a gas pipeline on August 23, the day of the Crimea Plat­form Summit. The fact that the FSB tor­tured the detainees⁸, dis­sem­i­nated via con­trolled media staged inter­ro­ga­tion videos of the Akhme­tov broth­ers after they had been tor­tured, and obstructed the work of lawyers, con­firms human rights activists’ crit­i­cism that the case is polit­i­cally moti­vated and fab­ri­cated, just like hun­dreds of other crim­i­nal cases before, while more than 110 Ukrain­ian nation­als remain in prison colonies in Crimea and Russia.

The case of Dzhe­lial and Akhme­tov is the first in which persons are per­se­cuted for their support of the Crimea Plat­form. An actual reason for Nariman Dzhelial’s per­se­cu­tion might be his public support for the Crimea Plat­form and his par­tic­i­pa­tion in its Inau­gural Summit. However, we still lack a con­sol­i­dated response of all Plat­form par­tic­i­pants to the new wave of per­se­cu­tions. There­fore, one of the Platform’s major first steps should be build­ing up a well-struc­tured system of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and deci­sion-making to achieve its declared goals.

At the same time, the fact that 46 del­e­gates par­tic­i­pated in the Summit is a demon­stra­tion of the broad inter­na­tional support for Ukraine and the readi­ness to find new mech­a­nisms to end human rights vio­la­tions, to release Kremlin hostages, and restore secu­rity in the region. There­fore, arrang­ing a con­tin­u­ous and con­sis­tent post-Summit activ­ity should be pri­or­i­tized since the Summit was only the start of the Plat­form. The Crimea Plat­form will achieve its goals only if the approach to the issue of Crimea’s occu­pa­tion will change: this chal­lenge is not limited to the region, it threat­ens Euro­pean and global secu­rity because of Russia’s geopo­lit­i­cal ambi­tions and its efforts to further esca­late ten­sions in dif­fer­ent regions.

Olha Skryp­nyk chairs the Crimean Human Rights Group and is the Coor­di­na­tor of the Group for Human Rights and Inter­na­tional Human­i­tar­ian Law in the Crimea Platform’s expert network. A German version of this text has been pub­lished on the Ukraine ver­ste­hen website.

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