Crimean Exceptionalism – Russian heart, Ukrainian mentality
Too many Crimeans seem to want to live in two countries simultaneously, or more precisely, to live in a country whose existence is economically and sociologically impossible, one which is simultaneously characterized by Russian prosperity and Ukrainian corruption.
Okay, the Crimean honeymoon is over. For over 4 years, I have consistently argued for the political and legal legitimacy of Crimea’s integration into the Russian Federation, and it hardly seems analytically useful to further labour the point. My position on that particular question is well documented.
So let’s just take that as a given.
Let’s move on to a few brass tacks issues.
Crimea has some very serious social and economic problems, some inherited from Ukrainian times, and some new.
In as far as I can see, the Russian federal government is not at fault for having created or exacerbated any of these problems. On the contrary, since the 2014 re-unification, the Russian federal government has done everything which could reasonably be expected to stimulate the peninsula’s social and economic development, particularly in infrastructure and federal funding of the Crimean public healthcare sector. In addition to being an infrastructural project of immeasurable value in itself, federal spending on the Kerch Strait Bridge project has been a significant source of stimulus.
So the federal government has done everything which could reasonably be expected to lift Crimea out of the sorry state of social and economic under-development which pertained in March 2014. But external stimuli can only go so far, because the problems are internal to Crimea itself.
For the first 18 months to 2 years after the re-unification, things in Crimea were genuinely getting better. There was economic uplift. Most people’s salaries increased by 70% or more, although the cost of living also increased, almost proportionally. There was a concerted anti-corruption drive – people became far more hesitant to offer or accept bribes. Also, the peninsula’s political transformation created a significant feelgood factor among the rank-and-file citizenry – there was an observable difference in people’s level of motivation in relation to basic forms of social discipline and decorum. There was less public drunkenness. There was less casual violence at street-level. There was less crazy driving. Clearly, something had changed – something was motivating people to be better citizens.
After about 18 months, everybody started to relax. Slowly but inexorably, the bad old Ukrainian-era habits started to return.
There is one particular social pathology which Crimea seems to be having very great difficulty in outgrowing. We might name that pathology “Crimean exceptionalism.”
In order to understand what Crimean exceptionalism is, and how it leads to social and economic stagnation today, it is necessary to first discuss Crimean exceptionalism in terms of the history of Crimea’s decades under Ukrainian administration. Many readers will already be perfectly well aware of this historical background, but I believe it is worth briefly reiterating for the sake of clarification and context, before I begin to discuss how Crimean exceptionalism operates today.
When you talk to Crimeans, if you refer to the time “when Crimea was part of Ukraine,” many of them will immediately correct your phraseology.
They are aware that you mean it only formally, but in any case, they will still correct you, just to underline the point
– they will say “Crimea was never really a part of Ukraine. Crimea was merely under Ukrainian administration.”
In its historical context, this is reasonable. All of Crimea’s largest cities were built by a Russian monarch, Catherine the Great. Practically everybody on the peninsula speaks Russian as a first language. 57% of Crimeans identify their own family backgrounds as primarily “Russian.” Among Crimea’s minority-groups, most are predominantly pro-Russian in their political outlooks – Greeks, Armenians, etc.
With all of this taken into consideration, they’re right – Crimea was never a part of Ukraine in any meaningful or normative sense.
Furthermore, it is possible to argue that, even on the legal or formal level, Crimea was never part of Ukraine.
Khrushchev transferred the Crimean peninsula to the administration of the Ukrainian SSR in 1954, but the Soviet constitution stated that in order for such a decision to have legal validity, it needed to be ratified by the USSR Council of Ministers.
In the case of the 1954 transfer of Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR’s jurisdiction, that process of ratification never happened. It is therefore highly arguable that Crimea never legally became part of Ukraine in the first place. This was not so much of a sticking-point for as long as the Soviet Union existed – a shared Soviet citizenship was the most important thing, after all. However, in 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s transition to independence, most Crimeans suddenly found themselves living in the wrong country. In that sense, the 2014 re-unification was merely a corrective of a historical accident – between 1991 and 2014, most Crimeans had lived in a state of suspended animation.
Furthermore, after 1991, most Crimeans found life under Ukrainian administration economically alienating. While many large Ukrainian companies conducted their core-activities in the regions outside of Kiev, most still registered for tax-purposes in the Kiev Oblast, especially those which were geared toward international trade. This meant in practice that wealth generated in the regions was being hoovered up by Kiev – there was a grossly inequitable re-distribution of tax-revenues. Taxes collected from the local economies of Donbass and Crimea weren’t spent on improving services for people in Donbass or Crimea. Kiev took it all. We might say that the central political raison d’être of the Ukrainian Party of Regions was to address this.
Finally, Crimea’s unique ethnic mix endowed most of its inhabitants with a sense of difference. Of the Soviet Union’s 175 national groups, 170 were to be found in Crimea. Russians, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, Armenians, Greeks, various peoples from the North Caucasus, various Jewish communities, etc. With or without inter-marriage, these identities cross-pollinated each other in Crimea to form a distinct and recognizably “local” culture. As self-contradictory as it may sound, Crimea remains the world’s most cosmopolitan cultural village.
All of these factors – historical, juridical, linguistic, cultural, ethnic and economic – fed into the consensus among most Crimeans that “Crimea is not really a part of Ukraine.”
So this is the first historical instantiation of what we might refer to as “Crimean exceptionalism” – the cultural and normative opt-out clause which most Crimeans felt was due to them during their decades living under Ukrainian administration.
In winter-spring 2014, that cultural and normative opt-out clause very suddenly became reconceptualized as an actual juridical opt-out clause, a question of territorial jurisdiction once again. The rest is history. Most Crimeans will tell you that, while having Ukrainian passports didn’t personally bother them too much between 1991 and 2014, as long as their language-rights were respected, the legal-territorial aspect of the question concerning Crimea’s status never really went away.
But, unfortunately, post-reunification, “Crimean exceptionalism” hasn’t gone away either.
If Crimeans tell you that “Crimea was never really part of Ukraine,” then today they sometimes unintentionally imply that “Crimea is not really part of Russia.”
This is particularly observable in how Crimean people tend to rationalize the local culture of corruption. Crimeans overwhelmingly voted to re-unite with Russia in March 2014, and that clearly remains their overwhelming preference, but many still seem happy for the peninsula to continue as an enclave of Ukrainian-era corruption. In late 2015, the Russian federal government decided to liquidate the local Crimean ministry which coordinated the peninsula’s new economic development plan. Henceforth, planning of the peninsula’s economic development would be a federal matter. There was simply no point in pouring lots of federal money into a black hole of corruption and waste.
There is quite a memorable scene in Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel The Long Goodbye. The novel’s first-person narrator, Philip Marlowe, arrives home to find two homicide-detectives waiting for him. When he enters the house, the 2 detectives invite themselves in. They’d like to ask him some questions. Marlowe takes a heavy tome from his bookshelf, and slaps it into the hands of one of the cops. He says “You know what that is? That’s the California Penal Code. Show me where it says that I have to answer any of your questions.”
The cop looks at the book in his hands, then glances mischievously to his partner.
He answers “One of the funny things about law-books is that the people who read’em think the law is in’em.”
The 2 cops then proceed to unceremoniously kick the crap out of Marlowe.
This scene illustrates a basic fact of life everywhere, not only in Ukraine or in Russia.
Nonetheless, it is particularly pertinent to the wholesale dysfunction of the legal system in Crimea today.
It does not matter one iota what is written in the statute-books if the police, prosecutors, judiciary and the juridical apparatus generally are too lazy or incompetent to bother reading them, or if everybody just conveniently makes the rules up as they go along.
In other words, there was absolutely no point whatsoever in replacing Ukrainian statute-books with Russian statute-books without also implementing a root-and-branch purge of the police, the prosecutor’s office, the judiciary and juridical apparatus. If the Russian government actually wants Russian law to apply on the Crimean peninsula, then they’re just going to have to purge everybody who worked in the system under Ukrainian jurisdiction, as un-corrupting those people will simply be impossible. If you’ve been on the take for 20 years, and financed a life of luxury accordingly, then how are you supposed to suddenly just stop? Furthermore, waiting for them to retire will be futile, as they will simply reproduce themselves in the system. Until the federal government has purged the juridical apparatus, the Crimean legal system’s dysfunction will continue to be a social cancer which effectively prevents social or economic development. How can investors in Crimea have any confidence if everybody has a right to steal, just as long as they bribe the judge and the prosecutor? How is there supposed to be economic development when the legal environment hasn’t even normalized?
Do these problems also exist in mainland-Russia?
To some extent, yes. But Russia would never have come through its myriad crises from the 1990’s if a systemic battle against corruption had not been waged. If Russian post-Soviet apparatchiks were still as universally corrupt as Ukrainian post-Soviet apparatchiks, then Russia as a nation-state would simply no longer exist.
Today, corruption in the Russian legal system still exists, but it is not so ubiquitous as to be classifiable as “a social cancer.”
In Crimea, it is.
As it currently stands, in both civil and criminal cases, impunity is bought and sold in Crimean courtrooms, just as it was during Ukrainian times – blatantly. If you want to avoid a custodial prison-sentence, then there’s a standard price – $1,000 for every year of incarceration which you would like to avoid.
It doesn’t exactly help the federal government’s de-dollarization initiative, does it?
But we must be realistic here – for the moment, at least, a root-and-branch purge of Crimea’s juridical apparatus is not politically feasible. If the federal government were to attempt it, then the international human rights industry would go into overdrive, propagandizing about “repression” or “human rights abuses” in Crimea.
Most ordinary Crimeans will assure you that “the elites are to blame.”
But this overlooks certain obvious things about Crimea’s “elites.”
Nobody in Crimea’s current “elites” grew up in a rarefied environment which encouraged them to see ordinary people as unworthy of basic forms of moral consideration – they are ordinary people. Practically everybody in Crimea’s current “elites” came from humble beginnings. The culture of Crimea’s “elites” has never been hermetically sealed by inherited wealth – it is an extension and a reflection of Crimea’s culture as a whole.
I have lived in a succession of endemically corrupt societies, starting with my country of origin, the Republic of Ireland.
In every one of these societies, ordinary people assure you that “the elites are to blame.”
But the street-level guy who assures you that “the elites are to blame” is the same guy who will lie to protect his friends or turn a blind eye when they embezzle money or commit a violent crime. His tribal loyalties will kick in IMMEDIATELY as soon as one of his friends gets caught doing something sociopathic.
And then the next day, he will once again assure you that “the elites are to blame.”
It’s a cop-out.
Ireland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Crimea – in all of these places, sorry to say, the ordinary people have “the elites” which they deserve.
Corruption starts at home.
Several months ago, I attended a meeting in Simferopol of Crimean journalists, local government employees, business-people, local politicos and other interested parties. The subject of the meeting was Crimea’s prospects for future economic development. Before strategies were suggested, first people talked about the problems – sanctions, federal investment, domestic private investment, foreign direct investment, the water-supply to Northern Crimea’s agricultural sector, etc….
I was aghast that some people were complaining of A LACK of federal investment in the local economy.
230 billion Rubles spent on the bridge, tens of billions more spent on Simferopol’s new airport and Crimea’s internal infrastructure, massive technological upgrades throughout Crimea’s public healthcare system, billions of Rubles earmarked for cultural infrastructure, all federally financed, and the locals are STILL not happy.
Sure, blame your sugar-daddy for everything.
There was one more barrier to economic development which I suggested – “Crimea’s economic and business environment will not normalize until its juridical environment normalizes.” I said.
They knew what I had meant – a purge.
“But we can’t just have outsiders coming in and telling us how to run everything,” answered one local government employee. By “outsiders,” he meant people from mainland-Russia.
Crimean exceptionalism, in its post-reunification form.
He continued “Here in Crimea, we have our own traditions.”
Crimea is not Tatarstan. Crimea is not the North Caucasus. Regarding Tatarstan, for example, with a majority-Muslim population and 2 languages working in parallel, it is entirely reasonable that Tatarstan should be granted certain opt-out clauses within the federal structure. But 57% of Crimeans are white ethnic Russians from nominally Orthodox Christian backgrounds. So what’s this “our own traditions” nonsense? Which opt-out clauses precisely would he like to invoke?
Which “traditions” does he mean exactly?
He meant Ukrainian-era levels of corruption and professional incompetence. But of course he couldn’t say that explicitly, so instead he used a nebulous, multi-culti-sounding phrase like “our own traditions.”
Predictably, it has not been possible to maintain the exponential rate of economic growth which Crimea enjoyed during the first 2 years after the re-unification. As previously stated, while most people’s salaries increased by 70% or more during those 2 years, the cost of living almost kept pace. In terms of purchasing-power, most people haven’t come out that far ahead. But then again, a realist would have predicted that in 2014. That’s just how artificial economic growth works – its effect on purchasing-power is marginal at best. While Crimeans realize that Crimea is economically in much better shape than present-day Ukraine, a crisis of expectations has still developed, and this may partially explain a gradual deterioration in levels of social discipline generally over the past 2 or 3 years. When Crimeans drive, it’s become once again cool for them to steer with their elbows while surfing on their smartphones. On an annual basis, Crimea produces the same number of road-fatalities as does France, which has 32 times Crimea’s population. Between 2014 and 2016, the post-re-unification honeymoon-period, that kind of razpizdyai-nonsense was far less prevalent. People felt good, so they kept it on the straight and narrow. The presence of casual violence at street-level has also seen a marked increase. Partially owing to the economic conditions created by the sanctions-regime, there has also been an influx of “barygy” (spivs, profiteers, black-marketeers) from the North Caucasus.
But then again, we shouldn’t be pinning the blame for Crimea’s recent marked expansion of a baryga-culture exclusively on chaps from the North Caucasus. It also serves as a classic example of the Marxist maxim that “бытие определяет сознание” (“being defines consciousness”)
– during Soviet times, Crimea was earmarked as a tourism-zone and for agriculture, especially viticulture, so the peninsula was quite deliberately never industrialized. Gorbachev’s “dry laws” killed a lot of the vineyards. With sanctions and infrastructural limitations hindering growth in the tourist sector, no significant industrial base and an agricultural sector which has serious water-problems, trade is the dominant sector of the Crimean economy.
“Бытие определяет сознание” – if re-sale is basically all they do, then people learn to think like “barygy” 24/7.
The federal finance keeps coming, and yet many Crimeans still seem to think that Mother Russia owes them something. Their decades living under Ukrainian administration had an infantilizing effect. Many Crimeans seem to overlook the point that, in order for Russia to survive and recover from the appalling social, economic, humanitarian and cultural crises which it suffered during the 1990’s, moral rebirth was necessary. From here, developmentally, I think that there is a distinct possibility that Crimea will become like a majority white-Russian Orthodox version of Chechnya or Dagestan.
Let me explain what I mean:
The Russian federal government understands that, realistically, it will never be able to establish the rule of Russian law in Chechnya. Nonetheless, it remains a pragmatic necessity that Chechnya be maintained within the Russian Federation’s territory. This is because the Chechens are traditionally a warrior-people, a nation of mercenaries. Traditionally, it was seen as ignoble to work the land in Chechen society – the only honourable profession for a man to have was as a warrior. War has never been a matter of principle for Chechens – it is simply a profession. In time of war, it has always seemed perfectly natural for them to sell themselves to the highest bidder.
Therefore, if Chechnya were not a republic of the Russian Federation, then the Chechens themselves would inevitably be bought by Russia’s geo-strategic adversaries and used to destabilize large swathes of south-western Russia. The only way to prevent the Chechen population from becoming a major security-threat to Russia is to maintain their homeland within Russia’s borders.
Give them passports, keep them sweet with federal money, and if it’s soldiering-jobs they want, then there’s plenty of that to go around.
All that being said, the Russian federal government is under no illusions about ever being able to establish the rule of Russian law in Chechnya. Chechnya will always be bandit-country. There’s absolutely nothing that the Russian federal government can do about that.
Unlike Chechnya, Crimea is majority ethnically Russian and nominally Orthodox. However, the geo-strategic analogy still applies. On the geo-strategic level, it is a matter of pragmatic necessity that Crimea be maintained within the Russian Federation’s territory. Sevastopol is vital, and Crimea enables Russia to counter threatening NATO deployments in the Black Sea. The peninsula itself is like one giant aircraft-carrier. The maintenance of Russia’s presence in Crimea is an existential necessity. Nonetheless, it may prove very difficult to establish the rule of Russian law in Crimea in the long term – insofar as Crimea’s elites, Crimea’s judiciary, Crimea’s managerial class and Crimea’s “gopniks” (proletarian underclass) all seem resistant to this. There is a residual, semi-domesticated lawlessness and indiscipline which many Crimeans do not seem to be outgrowing. This residual, semi-domesticated lawlessness and indiscipline is the most obvious present-day manifestation of what I have chosen to call “Crimean exceptionalism.”