Ethnic and political identities in Crimea are more complicated than you think

On 16 March, a referendum will be held in Crimea on the prospect of formally uniting with the Russian Federation.  Austin Charron argues that a discussion of ethnic identity and political orientation in the lead up to this referendum requires a nuanced approach.


Graffiti in Crimea, in happier times.
Photo by the author.

In recent days the political crisis in Crimea has continued to escalate. Despite Russia denying that its troops have seized control of the peninsula, it quickly became clear to most Western observers that Crimea now lies firmly within Russia’s grasp, leaving Ukraine’s fledgling new government and its Western allies with little recourse to dislodge it.

In defiance of Ukrainian and Western condemnation, efforts to formally unite Crimea with Russia have rapidly advanced. The new Crimean Parliament officially declared the region a subject of the Russian Federation on March 6, and on March 16 a Crimea-wide referendum aimed at legitimising this declaration will be held. While few doubt that this referendum represents anything more than a rubber stamp on the decision of the Crimean Parliament (some news outlets have pointed out that the ballot is specifically designed to disallow any votes against integration with Russia), many have begun to speculate as to the true political preferences of Crimea’s three largest ethnic groups: Russians, Ukrainians, and Crimean Tatars. In so doing, the media have glossed over the complexities that characterise ethnic identities and political orientations among Crimea’s diverse population.

Most reports regarding the region’s ethnic makeup would have you believe that its citizens are sharply polarised between those who look towards Moscow and those who look towards Kyiv. Ethnicity is believed to predispose Crimeans towards either pole in homogenous blocs – Russians on the one hand, and Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars on the other. My research tells a very different story. In the summer of 2011 I conducted fieldwork in Crimea. The centrepiece of my work was an 800-person survey concerning ethnic, territorial, and political identities, which concluded that the oversimplification of identity politics conceals two important details about Crimea that I want to elucidate:

Crimean regional identity is very strong, regardless of ethnic identity

This is a point that has been vastly overlooked by the media, and yet the palpable sense of attachment to Crimea itself is apparent immediately to anybody who visits. As part of my survey I asked each participant to draw a map of their “homeland,” and the results were fascinating. The hand-drawn maps reflect a wide range of territorial scales – from people’s houses to the entire world and everything in between – and yet the single most common scale at which members of each of Crimea’s three main ethnic groups affix the notion of “homeland” was Crimea, and Crimea alone. This includes 39.9% of Ukrainians, 49.5% of Russians, and 78.3% of Crimean Tatars.

Part of this strong sense of regional identity is tied to a romantic view of the peninsula’s natural beauty and hospitable climate – the sunny beaches and mountainous landscapes that draw millions of tourists from the post-Soviet space to Crimea every year. Russians and Ukrainians raised during the Soviet period have also internalised long-standing narratives of conquest and heroism related to the annexation and Russification of Crimea, and to the defence of the peninsula (particularly the city of Sevastopol) in both the Crimean War and World War II.

The Crimean Tatars, on the other hand, view Crimea as part and parcel to their very existence as an ethnic group, which first coalesced within the peninsula from a diverse mixture of Mongols, Scythians, Goths, Greeks, Armenians and numerous other groups that had settled in Crimea through the ages. For the Crimean Tatars, ethnic and regional identities are therefore inextricable.

Political orientations vary widely within each ethnic community in Crimea

Another prevailing assumption is that the vast majority of Russians in Crimea favour unification with the Russian Federation, while Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars would unanimously preserve the region’s status as a part of Ukraine. This is the issue that will (in theory at least) be put to the test with the upcoming referendum.

Another question in my survey asked participants to indicate what they believe Crimea’s political status should be: a part of either Ukraine or Russia as an autonomous republic or an oblast (non-autonomous province); an independent state; or “other.” I divided the responses from ethnic Ukrainians between those whose native language is Russian (Russified Ukrainians) and those whose native language is Ukrainian (Non-Russified Ukrainians), as native language is likely to influence political leanings. The responses to this question suggest weaknesses in popular notions about political orientation in Crimea:

Graph by the author.

Graph by the author.

While these results do reflect some general cleavages between ethnic groups, we should consider the diversity of opinions within each group that challenge the prevailing narratives. For example, roughly one quarter of Russian respondents would prefer Crimea to remain a part of Ukraine in one form or another, while over one third of Russified Ukrainians and one sixth of Non-Russified Ukrainians would see it go to Russia. Nearly one third of Crimean Tatars would prefer an independent Crimea, and a small handful would even support unification with Russia. I caution, however, that these figures should in no way be interpreted as a prediction for the March 16 referendum, but rather as a broad gauge of political opinions – or at least where they stood in 2011.

The detail I find most interesting is the overwhelming preference for autonomy, regardless of the preference for Ukraine or Russia. 69.8% of Russians, 71.7% of Russified Ukrainians, 69.9% of Non-Russified Ukrainians, and 50% of Crimean Tatars would opt to keep Crimea autonomous in either scenario, and if we include the option of independence the figure is even higher for each group. As Gwendolyn Sasse notes in her recent post on the Monkey Cage blog, Crimea’s status as an autonomous republic has been more symbolic than substantive, and I argue that autonomy is an integral component of Crimean regional identity. While it remains unclear at this time within which national borders the Crimean Peninsula will end up once the dust settles, autonomy will certainly remain an important issue for the people of the region.


3 thoughts on “Ethnic and political identities in Crimea are more complicated than you think

  1. Pingback: Ucraina: destra radicale vs governo filo-russo - Pagina 114

  2. Pingback: Crimea referendum divides friends, families | pacttodo

  3. Pingback: Crimea referendum divides friends and families | pacttodo

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