In the wake of blatantly political voting during Eurovision 2016, which Ukraine’s Crimean Tatar representative Jamala won despite losing both the popular and the jury vote, to Russia and Australia respectively, the debate has been dominated by the following two positions:
Russia supporters – It was a political song, and as such inadmissable under long-standing Eurovision rules. The voting hewed to geopolitical lines – there was a remarkable correlation between the jury votes for Russia, and the levels of antipathy towards Russia amongst their respective national elites. Indeed, prior to the event, a Eurovision source told a British paper that “the feeling is that the European Broadcasting Union know how unpopular a Russia win would be and will do everything possible to help the other favourites to victory.” As soon as the conspiracy theory proved itself true, the official NATO Twitter account sent its congratulations to Jamala just to let the point sink in. One need hardly ask what relation an organization that calls itself a defensive military alliance has to a singing contest in which the main players – Russia, Ukraine, Australia – aren’t even members in it.
West/Ukraine supporters – Haha, suck it Russia! Why don’t you give back Crimea to its rightful owners and then we’ll talk? Or according to Refat Chubarov, the head of the old Mejlis and self-appointed spokesman for all Crimean Tatars: “”Inshallah, one of the beautiful days we will gather together in a free from the Russian occupiers Crimea, in the ancient and glorious Bakhchisarai! Today another important step to this day has been taken!”
Personally, I am not interested in Eurovision, and never have been. Nor am I interested in banning songs about historical events, least of all songs that have zero relevance or bearing on modern day Russia. Moreover, Russia’s representative Sergey Lazarev had gone on record in 2014 saying that for him, Crimea remains Ukrainian, so even if there was a conspiracy to cheat Russia out of a Eurovision win, it rebounded on entirely the wrong (or right, depending on your viewpoint) person.
So normally I wouldn’t be wasting column space on this – if it hadn’t raised a much more important and serious misconception: Underlying the general Western line on Eurovision is a singular lack of concern not just for the opinions of Crimeans in general (which is already well established), but of the Crimean Tatars themselves.
The unedifying reality (for Ukrainian nationalists) is that not only did the Russo-Ukrainian majority in Crimea overwhelmingly support its return to Russia but it was not even opposed by the Crimean Tatars, a minority that has been lazily assumed by many Western commentators to be uniformly and irreconcilably opposed to Putin and Russia.
In a VCIOM opinion poll asked in February 2015, one year after the referendum in which Crimeans voted to rejoin Russia, around half of Crimean Tatars said they’d support the majority decision if the referendum was to be repeated. Only a quarter said they’d vote to remain in Ukraine. To be sure, this is significantly more than in the case of Crimean Russians and Ukrainians, amongst whom Ukraine patriots constitute a fraction close to the poll’s margin of error, but they are by no means a majority or even a plurality.
Now to be sure one might rejoinder that VCIOM is a state-owned polling firm and as such can’t be relied upon to present an objective picture of Crimean Tatar opinon. Let us then turn to that famous Kremlin mouthpiece, The Washington Post, and its political science bloggers Gerard Toal and John O’Loughlin writing in January 2015. On the basis of surveys they conducted in Crimea in December 2014, they found that a slightly more Crimean Tatars approved of Putin than disapproved of him; for comparison, less than 10% of them liked Obama, while almost 60% of them “disliked” or “strongly disliked” him.
Although this question was not strictly about the status of Crimea, it is unlikely, to say the least, that a people who viewed Russia’s actions as a brutal annexation would be willing to reward the man most responsible for it with a positive net approval rating.
EDIT 2016/05/18: As it turns out, in a Reddit discussion subsequent to the publication of this post, I was alerted to the fact that the authors had followed up their Washington Post article with a post at Open Democracy in March 2015, in which they presented the responses of the major Crimean ethnic groups – Russians, Ukrainians, and Crimean Tatars – to a question about whether the decision of the Crimean authorities to join Russia was correct or not. As you can see from the graph, slightly more than half of the Crimean Tatars replied that joining Russia was “generally” or “absolutely” the right decision, which matches the 49%-in-support results of the above VCIOM poll perfectly.
The Dutch Russia expert Nils van der Vegte was closely following the Crimea situation in early 2014 and around the time of the referendum informed his Twitter followers that “about 50% of the Tartars want to become part of Russia” and that they are split “20% pro-UKR, 20% pro-RU, and the rest are apolitical.” The exactitude with which subsequent polls would confirm Nils van der Vegte’s impressions is nothing short of remarkable.
But surely things could have changed in the past year to make the Crimean Tatars suddenly hate Russia. What about all the persecutions and the disbanding of the Mejlis, the main representative body of the Crimean Tatars?
Well, let’s talk about that. As part of Ukraine’s project to bind a restive Crimea to itself, the Mejlis was selectively filtered to be universally loyal to Ukraine to the point where its political inclinations came to fundamentally diverge from those of its supposed constituents. This was made most plainly evident in November 2015, when Mejlis-affiliated “activists” cut the light to 90% of the world’s Crimean Tatars for a PR stunt presented as an “energy blockade” of Crimea. This, unsurprisingly, was not all that popular amongst Crimean Tatars themselves, according to that other great Russophile propaganda organ The Kyiv Post:
Sure, one resident said, Putin may not be the best leader, but he at least kept his word – he had sent generators to the peninsula to save the day. The Ukrainian authorities, on the other hand, spent months railing against numerous human rights abuses on the peninsula … only to commit their own human rights violation in response.
It is in this context that Russia’s banning of the Mejlis has to be viewed – an organization that owes its loyalty to a foreign power and which despite having zero democratic legitimacy, and not only pretends to not only speak for every Crimean Tatar but engages in quasi-terrorist actions against Russia and ultimately its own people.
Set against that, the Crimean Tatar language has been made one of three official languages in the Republic of Crimea – a status that it never enjoyed in unitary Ukraine. This was part of a package of reforms that guaranteed and expanded their political and civil rights as an ethnic minority.
They have also been able to share in the steep improvement in living standards that all Crimeans have enjoyed since joining Russia. Western headlines such as “The Misery and Terror of Life Under Putin in Crimea” regardless, economic statistics indicate that wages have stayed well ahead of inflation; not only did Crimeans escape the vast contraction in living standards that occured in Poroshenko’s Ukraine, but the introduction of Russian-grade wages and pension payments even allowed them to bypass the (much more minor) recession taking place in Russia itself. Although this development has been very mystifying to some, such as the economist Dave Dalton and “Crimea expert” Ellie Knott both of whom have insisted that the economic statistics are falsified – as people who dislike dislike data that fails to reflect badly on Russia are wont to do – it is a reasonable and logical enough occurence for people familiar with the very considerable gap between Russia’s and Ukraine’s GDP per capita and the concept of “convergence” in economics.
All things considered, it is highly unlikely that Crimean Tatars have sharply turned against Russia in the past year, however much the neocons, the Poroshenko regime, and their pet Mejlis might wish it were otherwise.
On a less hyperbolic note, I am certainly not trying to argue Crimean Tatars are very enthusiastic and happy about Crimea’s return to Russia (though that should be obvious enough from the data). But nor are they particularly aggrieved about it; that describes a very modest minority, while the majority are basically apathetic (and another small minority are volubly Russophilic). Any talk of using them as a fifth column, let alone a partisan underground, belongs to the realm of fantasy – which is irresponsible but understandable, since their emigre Mejlis politicians have nothing else to offer.