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What You Need to Know About Crimea: An Interview with Charles E. King

The situation in Ukraine remains incredibly tense, despite Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych’s flight from Kiev and the establishment of an interim government in the capital.

On Thursday, masked gunmen seized control of the regional parliament buildings in Simferopol, capital of the Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea, and raised the Russian tricolor.

The Crimean peninsula, long associated in the West with Russia thanks to events like the Crimean War in 1854-1855 and the Yalta conference at the end of World War II, was once a part of the Soviet-era Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, but became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. Today, Russians form an ethnic majority in Crimea, alongside significant minorities of Ukrainians and the Turkic Crimean Tatars.

To get a better understanding of the situation in Crimea and Ukraine generally, I spoke today with Charles E. King, Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University and a specialist on Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia. He is the author of Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams.

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Why was Crimea handed over to Ukraine in 1954?

Well, there’s still a lot of debate about why that actually happened, but we have to be very clear about this – it wasn’t handed to Ukraine. The administrative boundaries were changed so that Crimea became a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

At the time, of course, there was no sense in which this was handing off to any other form of sovereignty or any other kind of sovereign entity. It was an internal administrative change inside the Soviet Union. In practical terms, it had very little impact on Crimea itself or on Ukraine. There’s a lot of speculation about whether Nikita Khrushchev, who was general secretary at the time, was giving Crimea to his home republic of Ukraine as a gift. That could be. But I think we kind of overplay the importance of that act now, because of course the significance of it more than a half century down the road was for the matter of Crimea’s place inside independent Ukraine to be critical to today’s politics.

Why weren’t Crimea and other Russian-speaking areas ceded to Russia in 1991 during the breakup of the Soviet Union?

It’s important to remember that all of the Soviet republics that became independent in 1991 were so-called union republics -- Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and so on -- and that the international boundaries between those newly-independent states were identical to the Soviet administrative boundaries.

In other words, when the Soviet Union and other federated socialist states -- Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia -- broke up, we often say they broke up into their constituent ethnic groups, but that’s not true at all. They broke up into their constituent republics. The preference of the international community -- and indeed the preference of those who led their territories to secession -- was that the easiest thing was simply to turn the dotted lines into solid lines. And it was not until the secession and recognition of Kosovo, as well as then the secession and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, that that principle began to change.

Crimea is an autonomous republic inside Ukraine itself, so it has a sort of territorial autonomous status to it that, of course, the regions of eastern Ukraine don’t have.

There are Russian military forces located in Sevastopol. What has their legal status been since Ukrainian independence?

This was a major issue in 1991, when Ukraine became independent. It was not fully resolved until 2010, when a long-term lease was signed by the Ukrainian and Russian governments, ratified by both the Ukrainian and Russian parliaments that extends the leasing rights at the port of Sebastopol and the military district around Sebastopol until the year 2042. In legal terms, Russian forces certainly have a right to be there – there’s a status-of-forces agreement between the countries, and that’s something that was agreed to by the previous government.

Has there been an activist secessionist movement in Crimea (prior to the seizure of the regional parliament building in Simferopol yesterday, that is)?

Well, going back to the 1990s, there’s been the sentiment that Crimea sits very uneasily inside Ukraine, that if one could simply roll the dice again and change history, Crimea would be very happy to remain part of the Russian Federation if had never been given over to Ukrainian administration in 1954.

In the early 1990s, there was certainly a secessionist movement and very energetic negotiations between Kiev and Simferopol produced an agreement that provided for autonomy with a local parliament in Crimea. And at that stage, because of relations between Russia and Ukraine at the time, that seemed to satisfy everyone. The Russians got to keep their military forces in Sevastopol, the Crimeans got recognition of their special historical status inside Ukraine, and Ukrainians got to keep Crimea as part of an integral Ukraine.

Now, unfortunately, it looks like some of that is being thrown up in the air, and unless all sides are very, very careful, one does really have an explosive, even a kind of nightmare scenario.

Let’s step away from Crimea and look at Ukraine broadly and some of its other major cities. Odessa, which is Ukraine’s third-largest city after Kiev and Kharkiv and the country’s largest port, has, at least according to news reports, been relatively quiet even though it lies in the pro-European west of the country. Why is that?

Well, there’s a strong view among lots of Ukrainians that right now the most important thing is stability, and it’s perfectly reasonable to be a Ukrainian patriot but a Russian speaker. In fact, you have people showing a kind of solidarity in cities like L’viv by now agreeing to spend an entire day just speaking Russian, to demonstrate that the divide in Ukraine is not between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers, that people who are trying to make argument are the extremists trying to divide Ukraine.

In the case of Odessa, you have a city that has been very comfortable being multicultural and multiethnic, that has been very comfortable inside Ukraine and its transition from the Soviet system to an independent Ukraine over the last twenty years, in a way that has been quite straightforward and relatively easy. So, I think the idea that there is a fundamental divide between being a Russian and being a Ukrainian is largely a product of extremists on both sides.

Building upon that, would it be fair to say that the boundary between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers is not simply an east-west binary.

Exactly. It’s not an east-west binary at all. If you look at reported language use or voting in the last election, you begin to see a kind of red-state/blue state phenomenon that has an east-west dimension to it, but there are so many other cross-cutting dimensions here.

There’s an urban/rural distinction that comes into play. There ‘s the special status of Kiev that comes into play, which is not similar to voting patterns in extreme western Ukraine. You’ve got the Crimean dimension, where you’ve got the Crimean Tatar population – a little over 12 percent of Crimea --- who have been very pro-Kiev government in their recent politics. It is easy on first blush to see this as a dividing line following the Dnieper River, between so-called left bank and right bank Ukraine, but things are much more complicated than that.

What happens now? What are the options available to the Kiev government, Yanukovych (wherever he might be), Russia, Europe, and the United States?

Well, the problem is that right at the moment you have to have as sense of statesmen ship on all sides. That means cool heads, calm policies, and not stoking the passions of the street. But the difficulty is that you have individuals and factions on all sides who feel they have no choice to stoke the street. You have a new Ukrainian government still facing protesters on the streets of Kiev, and it feels that it can’t do things behind closed doors but has to appeal to protesters on the streets, most of whom are perfectly reasonable people but some of whom are extremists. You have demonstrators – Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean – in Simferopol. You have the apparently Russian militants who have taken over the parliament building and raised the Russian flag. You have the Russian government itself, which may have given asylum to Yanukovych, and which is convinced that the government in Kiev, regardless of what happens to Yanukovych, is illegitimate.

So, on all sides, what the situation demands is cool-headed, strategic calculation. What it actually seems to be pushing towards is an extremist response.