14/10/2022 0 Comments
Originally posted on LSE's EUROPP blog, 14 October 2022.
Russia’s attempted annexation of four Ukrainian regions following hastily organised ‘referendums’ has been heavily criticised by politicians in the West. Eleanor Knott argues the votes were not only illegitimate but have also further undermined Russia’s claim over Crimea.
In 2014, annexation – the forcible seizure of a state’s territory by another state – was a rarity. After all, annexation is an internationally illegal and “morally impermissible” act. Before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the last previous example –Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara – was in 1976.
In late September 2022, Russia set about annexing four further regions of Ukraine: Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. Like in Crimea, Russia organised illegal and sham annexation ‘referendums’ in the four regions. Against the backdrop of ongoing shelling and Russian occupation, ‘voting’ in the ‘referendums’ took place between 23 and 27 September, with annexation treaties signed by Russia on 30 September 2022.
These are not referendums
Like with Crimea, these were far from legitimate referendums. They were neither free nor fair. They were not held with neutral international observers and they took place in the context of an ongoing war, invasion, and occupation launched by Russia on the territory of Ukraine.
Searching for an alternative word than ‘referendum’ to explain what is going on, Tim Snyder labels them instead as “media exercises”. For Snyder, these media exercises are part of a propaganda campaign “to shape how people think about Russian-occupied Ukraine”.
Labelling the ‘referendums’ simply as “illegal”, we might “convince ourselves that some voting happened with some flaws” when “meaningful voting” was neither possible nor occurred. These exercises are designed to create facts on the ground to match Putin’s intentions to annex these four territories. There was never an alternative plan but ‘referendums’ that led Russia to annex Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson.
The ‘referendums’ in these four regions in 2022 should encourage us to revisit what we know, or what we think we know about a similar annexation ‘referendum’ held by Russia in Crimea in 2014. It should also encourage us to revisit what we think we know about Crimea’s residents’ identity and preferences in the run up to Russia’s annexation.
Few recognise the results of the 2022 ‘referendums’ as representing the real preferences of these regions’ residents. In Crimea, we also recognise that the 2014 referendum was illegal, illegitimate, neither free nor fair, and held in conditions of an armed occupation. But, many suggest that the outcome of the referendum – where a majority voted in support of annexation – is still how a majority would have voted if the referendum was held under free and fair conditions. After all, weren’t the majority of Crimea’s residents already pro-Russian nationalists? Weren’t they already Russian citizens?
My recently published book, Kin Majorities, questions all these assumptions. Based on fieldwork prior to annexation, in 2012 and 2013, I show how Russian identification was far more complex in Crimea than we previously understood or recognised. Crimea is often presented as a region inhabited by a majority of ethnic Russians. In fact, the 2001 census shows that only a small majority (58%) identified as ethnically Russian.
Identifying as ethnically Russian, or speaking Russian, did not mean wanting to engage or aligning with, or support, Russia, especially the Putin regime. Put simply, identifying as ethnically Russian did not translate into being a Russian nationalist, or being pro-Russian, for many. Moreover, many I interviewed did not view Russia as a positive entity, but as corrupt and authoritarian, and more corrupt and far more authoritarian than Ukraine.
Moreover, a large constituency of those interviewed eschewed talking in ethnic terms altogether. They might identify their parents as ethnically Russian, and they might speak Russian, but they identified first and foremost as Ukrainian citizens. Attachment to Ukraine, as their state, was their preferred way of identifying.
We also need to revisit whether Crimea was ‘passportised’ before Russian annexation, which is to say whether individuals had really acquired Russian citizenship en masse before 2014. In my book, I detail how I never met anyone with Russian citizenship, and interviewed very few who wanted Russian citizenship. For most, Russian citizenship was neither available nor desirable, giving Crimea’s residents rights they neither wanted nor needed.
In turn, we should not just assume that the preferences of Crimea’s residents were so simply pro-Russian before Russia’s annexation. Doing so accepts Russia’s version of events. Rather, we should continue to be sceptical both about the legitimacy of the annexation ‘referendum’ and its result, just as we are of the annexation ‘referendums’ that took place in 2022.
As much as they are similar, the 2014 ‘referendum’ in Crimea is also different in two ways to the 2022 ‘referendums’. First, Russia had total political and military control in Crimea prior to the ‘referendum’ after Ukraine ordered its military to retreat. Ukraine was, understandably, concerned that they risked escalation with Russia – such as an invasion of the mainland of Ukraine – if they installed martial law. Instead, Ukraine did not order troops stationed in Crimea to actively resist. Crimea has remained under Russia’s de facto control since March 2014.
In contrast, Russia does not control, politically or militarily, by any means the entire territory of the four regions it has sought to annex. Ukraine is gaining significant ground in these territories, in Kherson particularly. The scenes from liberated towns, of people emotionally greeting Ukrainian troops liberating them from Russian occupation demonstrate how far Russia is away from securing the successful annexation of these territories.
Second, the nature of the conflict differs. Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk, and Luhansk are all active sites of war, invasion, and occupation. But, in Crimea, Ukrainian troops withdrew before fighting ensued. There was little overt violence during annexation and only one death.
Today’s violence in Crimea is a consequence of annexation. Russia has sought to punish, persecute, kidnap, torture, and murder those who disagree with annexation, or demonstrate active support for Ukraine since 2014. Crimean Tatars have been particular victims of these human rights abuses, and labelled as extremist, had their rights restricted, and their organisations banned.
Just as Russia drafted reservists to serve in its war against Ukraine, and hundreds of thousands have fled Russia, it has specifically targeted Crimean Tatars with draft notices. These actions follow Russia’s actions elsewhere in disproportionately targeting regions of Russia with high non-Russian minorities, and Muslim minorities in particular. Refat Chubarov, the leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement, has argued that Russia’s draft notices aim to demobilise and “destroy as much as they can of the adult Crimean Tatar population”, given they constitute the biggest internal opponents of Putin’s annexation of Crimea.
If there is one takeaway from the illegal ‘referendums’ held in four of Ukraine’s regions then it should be the implications for Crimea’s referendum. Some have branded these annexations a “strategic mistake” by devaluing and undermining Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Indeed, Russia’s annexation of Crimea was supposed to be a “special” case. Now Russia is acting as if it is a path we should expect the country to take.
Politicians and policymakers in the West do not accept the 2022 annexations by Russia and regard the accompanying ‘referendums’ as illegitimate. While they do not officially accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea, many have tacitly accepted it as an unfortunate reality. Yet, if we acknowledge the 2022 annexation ‘referendums’ not only as illegal and shambolic but “obscene”, why should we think any differently of Russia’s annexation of Crimea?
We do not know how Crimea’s residents would have voted in a free and fair referendum. We should accept it no more than Russia’s annexation of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk.
Moldova is often presented as geopolitically rifted between the Russian east and west Europe west, and ethnically divided between Moldovan and Romanian. As a recent article in the Monkey Cage suggests, these rifts even map onto each other: with Moldovans more likely to identify as pro-Russian, while Romanians—including many of the new administration—are more like to identify as pro-European. But what are these binary categories of ethnic identification and geopolitical affiliation missing?
(Here I am discussing only how the majority is divided, but Moldova is home to many minority groups too of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Gagauz and Roma.)
As I argue here and in an ongoing book project, we need to view debates of identification beyond mutually exclusive categories of Moldovan and Romanian. And we also need to understand the meaning and the content of these ethnic identification categories.
First, is the fact that Moldovan censuses since the post-Soviet period continue to show a substantial majority identifying as Moldovan (75% in 2004, 76% in 2014) and a sizeable minority identifying as Romanian (7% in 2014, 2% in 2004). Of course, Moldovan censuses themselves have been an aspect of nationalizing politics with incumbent regimes, most notably by the Communist (PCRM) regime in 2004. PCRM used the 2004 census to boost their Moldovanist national project: that Moldova is not only an independent state but a separate nation to Romanian, with Moldovan language being separate from (if not linguistically different to) Romanian language (as many nationalizing regimes do).
Second, however, is the fact that this Moldovanist interpretation of identification is not how many people identify as Moldovan. Based on fieldwork that I conducted in Chisinau 2012 and 2013, I found that many young people identify as Moldovan as a civic, political statement, not an ethnic judgment. These Moldovans identified with Moldova as their home, the place to which they know as their state and the legitimate entity of their political affiliation and loyalty. Meanwhile, to be Moldovan, for them, was compatible with identifying in a pro-European way. In other words, to be Moldovan was not to be pro-Russian, as Marius Ghincea has argued.
Third, there were those who identified as Moldovan and pro-Russian, albeit a small minority (beyond those I interviewed there are probably many more). But among participants I spoke with, what differentiated discourses of identification were their relation to politics and language. In my research, I distinguish between those who identify as Moldovan and those who identify as Linguistic Moldovans, a minority who were aligned with pro-leftist parties like the Communists and Socialists (PSRM). Linguistic Moldovans viewed their language not only as Moldovan but Slavic, in sharp contrast to Moldovans who identified their language staunchly as Romanian. But Linguistic Moldovans were a minority, as well as a politicized minority of participants.
And Linguistic Moldovans viewed Romania, as well as pro-European projects, as a threat to Moldova’s territorial integrity, seeing Romania as a competitive and colonizing state vis-à-vis Moldova. But, Moldovans did not. Moreover, Moldovans identified as such because they wanted to move beyond ethnic understandings of identification. Moldovans did not identify as Romanian, or with Romania, because they noted different social and political experiences, such as histories and legacies of Tsarism and the Soviet Union, that differentiated them from Romanians in Romania that had different experiences of Communism. And they identified with Moldova because it was a political expression of legitimacy and citizenship, even if many also held Romanian citizenship.
Finally, is the fact that many participants—beyond Moldovans and Linguistic Moldovans—identified in cross-cutting ways as ethnic/cultural Romanians in Moldova and with Romania as a kin-state. Some did not view Romanian and Moldovan as necessarily separable categories of identification: for them, to be Moldovan was to be Romanian. While others viewed themselves as partly Romanian and partly Moldovan because, like those I categorized as Moldovan, they did not consider themselves as totally alike with Romanians in Romania due to different political experiences and legacies.
Moldova might be divided along the lines of politics and identity. Shying away from the complexity of the fact that categories of Moldovan and Romanian do not represent how many categorize and understand their own identification might suggest Moldova is even more divided along these lines. After all, what this points to is how the category of Moldovan, and its relation to Romanian and Romania, is disputed. But, Moldova is also not separated into two divided camps of Romanian and Moldovan that translate into preferences towards west and east. That binary division is more like a simplistic cliché that ignores the real complexity, as well as the belief in a Moldovan state that transcends such divisions.
With an assignment coming up, we've been fielding lots of questions on the process of qualitative research. "Is this the right way to do X?" "Is it OK to combine X and Y?" "Is this the right number of codes?" "Is this the right approach?" "Am I allowed to do X?"
These questions follow a certain logic as if there is a right way to do qualitative research. The answers I give to these questions are probably unsatisfactory and frustrating to those asking them because the answer I give is something within the realm of "it depends" and/or "it's up to you". I come from a different logic where qualitative research is really about sense making and not rule following.
Sense making is more an intuitive process of working out, often iteratively, with lots of mistakes and stages of refinement, what works best for you as a researcher working with a certain set of data to answer a certain research question.
There are no rules for making sense of the data. There are no rules for thinking about how we make sense of data. Rather, it is often about empowering students to think what is striking and intriguing about their data, where the patterns are and where the disagreements or contradictions lie.
So, more important than working out if something is the right way is working out, for yourself, what is making sense; what is helping you. The job of the researcher is then to be able to explain and justify this process of messiness so that others can make sense of the process through which the data was transformed into analytical writing.
Taking coding, for example. There is a tendency sometimes to talk about coding as if it comes from a logic of rule following rather than sense making. This makes coding appear as if there is a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it; as if there might be a right number of codes, or hierarchies linking these codes together.
For me, coding is not an inherently given procedure but a sense-making process which we use as a way to interpret the data (i.e. beginning to dissect and recognise patterns within the data). Codes are not something that exist outside of the researcher but are the tools we use to label data in a way that makes sense to us.
In trying to tease out why I consider qualitative research to be about sense making not rule following my intention is not to lay blame students. With the growing concern in methods and methodology in social science, may be we have given the impression as teachers and researchers that there is a right way. Maybe we have not given enough space to recognising, and legitimising, the role of intuition (and reflexivity) in the process of qualitative research.
The challenge as we continue to formalise methods and raise expectations, in terms of methodological conversations and sophistication, is not to lose sight of this underlying logic of sense making that is fundamental to qualitative approaches. In other words, we need tools, ways of thinking and ways of communicating this logic of sense making and the role of intuition in the process of qualitative research and in training future generations of qualitative scholars.
Six years ago I was in Crimea. This was my first field trip to the Crimean peninsula. It is peculiar to reflect back on this time now that so much has changed. I was in the early stages of data collection and didn't know much about Crimea.
It was unseasonably cold in Crimea. Snow was falling, and a far cry from the supposed Mediterranean climate that I had expected. The only shoes I had with me that meant I did not slide into every road I crossed were an old pair of trainers. You can imagine: I stood out. I always stood out, but the trainers only enhanced this with my British-lack of heels and inability to cope well with Simferopol's slush.
But the 2012 Russian presidential elections on 4 March stick in my head. I remember making sure to pass by the Russian embassy several times that day to see what the vibe was. I thought the Russian presidential elections might be a bigger deal in Crimea than I witnessed them being. Before lunch on the day of the elections, I saw a few people (around 30) coming to vote. Some were even taking photos of themselves outside of the embassy. There were a few local TV cameras around and a few local police. And there was me, sheepishly try to suss out what was going on without drawing too much attention to myself. One thing that was striking was the age: all (of the few) that I saw coming to vote were elderly.
Later that day, I remember watching Putin's victory on TV with my host. Watching Putin cry as he returned to office, the event seemed so remote. It was hard to imagine this victory as something that might matter to Crimea.
It is precisely these contrasts -- expectations vs observations -- that have guided my understanding of Crimea as a place that is more complex, notably in terms of Russian identification, then is often given credit. Maybe more were voting in Sevastopol, as Crimea's "Russia's city", but this precisely the surprising thing about Crimea how our knowledge is often produced about peninsula from the perspective of Sevastopol.
But, six years later, these contrasts are the the precise ironies. Putin's return to Russia's presidency marked a ramping up of Russia's support for "compatriots" in places like Crimea. Then, four years ago, Putin led Russia's annexation of Crimea. In the space of a few weeks, Crimea's residents became Russian citizens (or were required to register as foreigners).
Tomorrow Russian citizens will go to the polls. They will likely seal a further victory for Putin. Elections will be held in Crimea precisely on the day, four years previously, that Russia formally annexed Crimea: 18 March 2014. As I sit in London writing this, with snow on the ground, the UK is in the throes of a tense and uncertain relationship with Russia, following the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury. Who knows where Crimea, Putin, or UK-Russian relations will be in six years' time.
Rejoice! Brexit will mean not just our country back from the strangehold of the EU. Brexit will also mean the return of the tangible symbol of what it means to be British: the blue passport.
The blue passport, after all, is a symbol to which we can all relate and lament. A symbol which can be rightfully returned to us now we have left the neo-imperialist European super-state. We have our rights back.
Of course none of this is true. The EU never imposed the colour of passports on member-states. The EU does not even impose common rules of citizenship across member-states.
But, I wouldn't be so quick to assume that blue passports are meaningless. Look beyond the UK and you don't have too look far for a precisely red vs. blue passport domestic and cross-border debate: Moldova. It is not for nothing that I tweet #MoldovanBrexit every second day.
In Moldova, the blue passport demonstrates the world in which Moldovan citizens are situated. A world where their rights to access spaces outside are limited (especially before 2014). It is the crippling costs of applying for visas, the crippling bureaucracies of applying for visas, the crippling time it takes to apply for visas, or the not-unlikely incidence that you might have to travel to a third-country intermediary (and acquire a visa for the third-country) to apply for the visa for state you want to visit.
The red passport meant the end to all this. Before 2014, the red passport meant acquiring (or reacquiring) Romanian citizenship (and EU citizenship). The red passport meant secure the acquiring the rights, status and belonging that Moldovan citizenship could not provide.
Since 2014, the red passport has also come to mean the fresh-faced Moldovan e-passport. Moldovans can now travel visa-free to the Schengen area so long as they have a red e-passport. The colour of the passport, of course, was not imposed on Moldova. The Moldovan state chose a red passports to show harmony with the EU (and the overcoming of the barriers of the blue passport). The EU did, however, insist on the e-passport for those wanting to travel visa-free to Schengen countries.
You have to wonder, then, why the UK would willingly give this all up. The UK government want us to believe that the blue passport is the symbol of all we lost by joining the EU. The blue passport transports us back to a time where British people could decide their own law. To a time where we could decide, incidentally, not to have a minimum wage or paid maternity leave.
But, the blue passport is the symbol of all that we are giving up.
Britain's Post-Colonial Reckoning
I'm not all gloomy about Brexit. Brexit might be precisely the post-colonial reckoning that Britain needs: a shake of realisation that Britain cannot force the EU, China, India and the US, among others, to yield to it. We will be the country forced to yield, not the other way around.
When the UK sees India, it sees a land of hope and opportunity: markets, people and skills. When India sees the UK, it sees a now provincial and former colonial overlord. Britain may remain blind to the this reality gap. It might remain blind to the everyday post-colonialities of the twenty first century. But Britain will experience this reality gap whether it can see it or not.
More likely, of course, Brexit will perpetuate Britain's victim-framing narrative. It will not longer be the EU victimizing the UK from within, imposing non-sensical directives. It will be the EU victimizing the UK through Brexit; punishing the UK for wanting a clean divorce, crippling the City to serve its own ends and preventing us from trade deals with those queuing at our door. We already see this narrative taking shape.
But, Brexit will mean a curtailment of Britain's rights and status in the international world, within and beyond the EU. The periphery is waiting for us. Let's go meet Moldova.