The issue of Crimean separatism is not new. In the early post-Soviet period it became one of the biggest challenges newly independent Ukraine had to manage. A closer look at the events of the early 1990s and the concept of Crimean autonomy helps to put current events in perspective and points to an alternative to war.

A history of fractious multi-ethnicity, a legacy of autonomy experiments, a Soviet-era transfer from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954, a center-periphery struggle in Ukraine, economic dependence, the tense relationship between Ukraine and Russia, and readily available military resources (in the form of the Black Sea Fleet) account for the complexity of the “Crimea question.” Separatism peaked in 1992-1994, and internal and external observers talked of Crimea as the next international flashpoint. On July 17, 1993, the Economist warned of a “long-running, acrimonious, possibly bloody and conceivably nuclear, dispute over Crimea.” Frequent comparisons were drawn with the wars in Yugoslavia.

Contrary to widespread expectations at the time, Crimea became a “non-conflict.” As a case in which real conflict potential existed but violent conflict did not materialize, it usefully addresses the bias inherent in the comparative study of conflict which overwhelmingly focuses on violent cases. The causes of violent conflict deduced from a sample of only violent cases misses the important dynamics of conflict-prevention in places where the same risk factors are present but no violence erupts. Crimea in the 1990s is such a case that points to the causal mechanisms that can defuse conflict potential.


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Twenty years later Crimea is again at the center of international attention. While many of the underlying regional issues are the same or similar — from the all-important role of the Crimean Tatars, Crimea's special place in the Russian political and popular mindset, the presence of the Black Sea Fleet, to a latent regional pro-Russian sentiment among the ethnic Russians and Russophone Ukrainians. However, there are important differences too. The most important among these are the following:

1. Compared to the Yeltsin-era Russia, Putin's Russia is domestically and internationally stronger and prepared to adopt a more provocative approach. Putin has deliberately escalated the current crisis through military maneuvers and the authorization by parliament of the use of Russian troops in Ukraine.

2. The current crisis in Crimea follows on from three months of protests and violent clashes in Ukraine that resulted in the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. Large parts of Ukrainian society are mobilized by these events, making for lower thresholds for both protest and violence. A weak provisional government made up of opposition parties and activists is struggling to assert control, in particular in the south and east of the country.

Putin's actions are primarily aimed at ensuring that Ukraine preserves a strong political voice for the southern and eastern regions. The Russian government knows that it does not have to risk an unpredictable war to influence Ukrainian and Crimean politics. Moreover, both Kiev and Moscow understand the critical role of the Crimean Tatars in any political or military confrontation in the region, including the risk of an insurgency. The key question now is whether Moscow and Kiev can continue to control the diversity of actors in Crimea. Ultimately, both sides have an interest in regional stability.

When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the perceived or real threat to Soviet-era autonomies became a driving force in the violent conflicts across the region (e.g. in Moldova, Georgia, Russia), Crimea was the anomaly here, as the Ukrainian SSR decided in mid-1991 to establish a new Crimean ASSR in response to a Crimean referendum in early 1991 (which had asked a question about Crimean autonomy “within the USSR” rather than the Ukrainian SSR of which it had been part since 1954). By the time the Soviet Union had disintegrated, the principle of Crimean autonomy had been agreed to, but not its content or institutional outlook. The idea of autonomy framed the center-regional struggle that followed. Two unilateral Crimean constitutions in 1992, envisaging different degrees of autonomy, galvanized the regional Russian movement. The elected Crimean president and leader of the Russian movement, Yurii Meshkov, played a key role in setting the political agenda in Crimea and Ukraine as a whole. Crimean separatism peaked in 1994 and led to a brief moment when Kiev lost control over regional politics and security. This void, however, was not filled by Russia or Russia-supported actors. The “Autonomous Republic of Crimea” was eventually embedded in the new Ukrainian state constitution of 1996, and its final outlook spelled out in the Crimean constitution of 1998.

In my book about Crimea as an instructive case of “non-conflict” in the 1990s, I point to this drawn-out constitution-making process as the key factor defusing conflict potential. It is an argument about institution-making rather than the actual institutional outcome or the details of the institutional design. Four other factors contributed to the peaceful outcome of the Crimean crisis in the 1990s:

1. Crimea's multi-ethnicity was itself a moderating factor. Overlapping and blurred identities between Russians and Ukrainians in the region and the presence of a sizeable and vocal Crimean Tatar minority, represented by its own organizations and guaranteed seats in the regional parliament (which no longer exist), provided an important check on Russian separatism.

2. The Crimean Russian movement was internally divided and became more so over time. It lost popular support when it failed to address the worsening economic situation.

3. Russia under Yeltsin exercised restraint in the wake of the first war in Chechnya.

4. Kiev adopted a cautious approach, continued to negotiate with the Crimean leadership and avoided pushing for the implementation of policies that would have been deeply unpopular in Crimea, such as the Ukrainian language law.

The Crimean presidency no longer exists, the Crimean parliament is officially called a “representative assembly” which has the power to pass “normative acts” (instead of laws). These normative acts can be vetoed by the Ukrainian government and referred to the Constitutional Court. The Crimean prime minister has to be approved by Kiev, and a special presidential representative seconded to the region exercises an element of control that is absent from other regions. Crimea's powers are politically weak and underdefined. The most meaningful clauses refer to the use of the Russian language in daily life, the protection of Russian, Crimean Tatar and the languages of other nationalities, and locally raised taxes staying in Crimea (this has remained contested). Overall, Crimean autonomy functions primarily at a symbolic level. Symbols are important in politics — they can help defuse tension, but their ambiguity and emotive appeal can also easily be manipulated.

Since 1996, Ukraine has lived fairly comfortably with the tension embodied in its constitution between the principle of a unitary state and the existence of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Arguably, a long sequence of national and regional elections has further integrated the region into the Ukrainian polity. Crimea's political landscape has retained some specific features — like the presence of the politically well-organized Crimean Tatars and regional parties subsumed under the bigger national party umbrellas. The issue of Crimean autonomy has never been far from the surface, even in times when southern and eastern regional interests are well represented at the center of Ukrainian politics. For example, the Crimean assembly, dominated by deputies associated with the Party of Regions, prepared an initiative to push for greater autonomy.

The Ukrainian state is currently being put to its biggest test to date. Hopefully, Crimea will remain a case of conflict-prevention. The foundations for politically addressing the various dimensions of the “Crimea question” are in place. This includes the possibility of redefining Crimea's autonomy status within the constitutional parameters set by the Ukrainian and Crimean constitutions. On Thursday, the Crimean assembly voted in favor of holding a regional referendum on greater autonomy. The referendum was meant to coincide with the presidential elections on May 25, but may well happen before then. The initially suggested referendum question sounded strangely reminiscent of similar referenda in the late Soviet and early post-Soviet period — it asked about support for Crimean “self-rule” (rather than sovereignty or independence) on the basis of “treaties and agreements” (rather than the existing national and regional constitutions). The wording of the question could still change, but for the moment it aims at autonomy within Ukraine. Political elites and protesters in eastern cities are also discussing steps towards more autonomy. If Russia and Ukraine can pull back from the brink of a large-scale violent conflict, the crisis is likely to revive the discussion about the principles of regional autonomy and perhaps federalism. For a country the size of Ukraine, this could prove a fruitful avenue for managing its regional diversity. For political elites “federalism” has been a dirty word since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the Ukrainian crisis could ultimately pave the way toward a more constructive engagement with the idea.

Gwendolyn Sasse is a political scientist at Oxford University and author of “The Crimea question: identity, transition, and conflict.” For other commentary from The Monkey Cage, an independent blog anchored by a group of political scientists from universities around the country, see www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage.