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Crimea and Ukraine – Dilemmas of Protest and Mutual Understanding

Oleh Kotsyuba
October 22, 2015

Live streaming from the Danyliw Research Seminar on Contemporary Ukraine is available at

The second panel of the Danyliw Research Seminar on Contemporary Ukraine raised the questions of understanding different protest groups that participated in the Euromaidan movement and those who participated in the Antimaidan protests. Andrei Nevskii presented evidence on political and social demands of the protesters collected from 140 interviews recorded in Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, and Crimea as the revolutionary events were unfolding. Eleanor Knott presented the results of her research on the “Crimean identity” before the Russian annexation: 53 interviews were conducted in Simferopol, including the youth wings of political parties and movements.

Nevskii particularly pointed to the disappearance of social and economic demands from the EuroMaidan agenda – instead, demands for European association emerged, followed by anti-Russian and anti-Putin slogans, and after violence broke out the slogans changed to demands for President Yanukovych’s resignation.

Nevskii stressed that a specific socio-economic protest agenda is important, because it makes the movement more successful, gives it a mass character, lends it long-term cohesion. This was the case in many cases of popular protests in Chile, Spain, and other countries. In Ukraine, a “negative coalition” occurred – people from very different backgrounds and with contrasting understanding of basic democratic principles cooperated spontaneously on a short-term basis with the only goal to overthrow a dictatorial ruler. Similar cases – in Tunisia and Egypt – show that social and political demands were “imposed” onto the protesters, which was not the case in Ukraine.

The collected evidence was striking particularly because in all interviews the best possible solution for all the socio-economic problems in Ukraine was seen as a simple intervention of some external force – European Union (for Euromaidan) or Russia (for Antimaidan protesters). Such hopes were not about financial intervention, but what seemed to be a need for supervision – either over the democratic institutions (for Euromaidan) or the government (for Antimaidan). Participants of these protest movements even proposed to hire “professionals” from other countries (e.g. from Switzerland, as one interviewee from Odesa suggested). Later in the protest movement, a substitution occurred of concrete economic and social demands for nationalist or regional, populist demands. The language was thus being increasingly hijacked by the government officials, and the protesters subsequently adopted that language.

The preliminary conclusion of the project underscores that social and economic agenda was present in the Euromaidan movement, but in a rather peculiar manner as it was embedded in the expectation of European integration, not the protesters’ own agency (a kind of “paternalism in which people rely mostly on external factors rather than on themselves or their government”).

In her presentation, Eleanor Knott stressed that while her sample was rather small sample and thus not representative, it demonstrates a certain range of attitudes. The project was informed by two larger questions: 1) Since Crimea was a region with the largest Russian population (Russian ethnic majority), can it be interpreted as the source of pro-Russian or perhaps even separatist sentiment? 2) If the referendum on “reunification” with Russia were free and fair, would the people have voted in the same way?

Knott emphasized that in answering these questions before the annexation the fact has to be taken into account that no one believed that Russia really wanted Crimea and Crimea did not necessarily wanted to secede from Ukraine. Historically, Crimea was an ethnic Russian majority community in post-Soviet Ukraine. Crimea was also anomalously different to the rest of Ukraine. Furthermore, a distinction needs to be made between all of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol – attitudes are significantly different in regard to secession. The apex of secessionist sentiments occured in 1994, afterwards that sentiment went down notably.

In terms of self-identification, Knott divided all respondents into categories such as “discriminated Russians”  (strongly pro-Russian, feeling threatened by the Ukrainian state), “ethnic Russians” (without the feeling of being discriminated), “political Ukrainians” (identified as citizens of Ukraine, regardless of ethnic identification), “Crimeans” (identifying regionally and inter-ethnically, as between Ukrainians and Russian), and “ethnic Ukrainians.”  From these categories, “discriminated Russians” and “political Ukrainians” present the most interest for research.

The interviews conducted show that “discriminated Russians” – who often also were political activists – felt as victims of “forced Ukrainianization” and that their rights as Russians were infringed upon. They also felt that their Russian identity was under attack.

The other group of particular interest - “political Ukrainians” – relied primarily on the political experience of being a Ukrainian, that is, socio-economic concerns were primary, not their ethnic background.

One of the most interesting findings of the project was that practically none of the groups supported separatism at the time of the interviews. Even “discriminated Russians” emphasized that secession wouldn’t be possible without bloodshed and a social cataclysm.

Knott concluded that the notion of the Russian majority in the Crimea is highly fractured and contested, and that there was no homogeneity of all Crimeans before annexation.

In discussion, Dominique Arel argued whether we can call the “discriminated Russians” perhaps the “political Russians” to the point that they are politically involved in the project of developing closer ties with Russia? Responding, Knott emphasized that her choice of “discriminated Russians” rather than “political Russians” as category was motivated by the fact that at the time of the survey they did not actively want to be a part of Russia. Moreover, the discourse of discrimination was coming up constantly in respondents’ answers, but this sentiment was not widely shared in the Crimea.

Knott also stressed that a major factor in the development of the secessionist sentiment was the fact that people in the Crimea did not see their interests served by Kyiv or the Donetks elite, they wished for a much more local, regional autonomy. This sentiment is not likely to change also with Moscow coming in as the governing power after annexation. Thus Crimea remains an interesting case for observation.

Margarita Balmaceda raised the question of whether the prevalence of political over economic demands was characteristic for both Euromaidan and Antimaidan and what that signifies.

Other questions raised in the discussion concerned non-inclusion of the Crimean Tatars in the project (the reason for which was the comparative framework of the study, formed by Moldova), the rise in protest activities in 2011-2013 (including the role of the Vradiivka case), general conclusions for the study of separatist movements. The anomaly of the cooperation between Euromaidan and Antimaidan in Odesa was discussed as a differing case. The case of the protest movement in Bulgaria was brought up, as well as the question of whether the term “Crimeans” would be rejected by the Crimean respondents as an artificial and political term imposed from above.