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:
- Intensifying the international policy on non-recognition of the Russian Federation attempt to annex Crimea
- Monitoring and coordination of international sanctions
- Counteracting human rights violations and international humanitarian law norms
- Securing safety and freedom of navigation in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov
- 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.