The world is waiting to see what is Russia’s next move in Crimea. Some say Putin regrets the decision to invade, given his failures to argue international law to his liking in the Security Council, and given the potential economic ramifications for Russia if sanctions are properly implemented. Others say this is just another step in an imperial policy that is not overly concerned about any possible international reaction.
In any case, these events are nothing new. Since the 2008 conflict with the state of Georgia, a country close to Crimea and which also has a coastline on the Black Sea, Russia has been in illegal occupation of two Georgian territories – Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Regardless of whether or not Russia advances from Crimea further into the Ukraine, it seems likely that Russia will attempt to continue to occupy Crimea on a long-term basis. Though there are many differences between Crimea and the Occupied Territories of Georgia, conditions of life in the Territories may serve as an accurate predictor of things to come in Russia’s new acquisition, particularly for the ethnic Tatar population who oppose Russia’s presence.
The outlook for those in opposition is not promising. In the aftermath of the 2008 conflict a number of ethnic Georgian villages and settlements were systematically destroyed and pillaged. Since then, a litany of ongoing human rights abuses have been reported in the Territories. These include:
ethnically targeted violence and looting, constant violation of security and property rights, hindering of freedom of movement and residence, destruction of property, (and) forced passporti(s)ation
To restrict the movement of person in or out of the territories, Russian military and local militia under the proxy regime have destroyed bridges and planted mines along the borders, especially around the river fords that were used by the local populations for crossings.
A number of measures have been imposed to marginalise ethnic Georgians. Without a passport issued by the de facto authorities of the Occupied Territories, Georgians can be deprived of basic abilities such as the ability to transfer property, vote in elections, apply for a simplified permit to cross the borders, work in the public sector, or register a business.
But applying for a passport can mean renouncing your national identity. A Human Rights Watch report in 2011 detailed how under Abkhaz law dual-citizenship was only allowed to persons of Abkhaz ethnicity – while others only had the right to obtain citizenship of Russia as their second nationality. This means that Georgians in Abkhazia must sign a form stating that they voluntarily renounce their Georgian citizenship in order to gain access to basic freedoms – and then they are stuck with a passport for a country that is not internationally recognised (unless they apply for a second citizenship with the country that is the occupying power).
Many people are separated from their family or their property by the borders of the territories, but crossing can result in detention by the police. The police themselves often do not wear uniforms or carry badges or credentials, allowing them to act with impunity. In Abkhazia in Georgian communities it seems the police often offer little protection and there have been numerous reports of arbitrary arrests, kidnappings, looting, and extortion.
There are several restrictions on the use of the Georgian language, particularly in schools. In 2010 Russian and de facto authorities reportedly dismantled radio and television transmitters in order to disable Georgian language programming, while even hanging posters in Georgian can result in threats of violence.
Access for International Organisations to the Territories is restricted and Russian troops have recently resumed building fences on the borders.
So, based on this consideration of life in Georgia’s Occupied Territories, what may life look like for the ethnic Tatar population of Crimea if the occupation continues? The Tatars — a Muslim group that was deported en masse from Crimea by Stalin in 1944 and that for decades has waged a peaceful struggle for the right to return — have been coming back in droves since 1989. In 2001 they were estimated to form 12% of the Crimean population, and they have constantly opposed the unification of Crimea with Russia.
Russia has already started the “passportisation” of Crimea – by some accounts this began as early as 2008. If the Tatars are vocal in opposition of the occupation, as they are likely to be, we may see the exercise of rights in Crimea being linked to a very strict regime of issuance of passports. Tatars may be forced to revoke Ukranian nationality in favour of an “autonomous republic” of Crimea. Border access will likely be severely restricted, with International Organisations being given short shrift. Russia will use the carrot and the stick and give grants to groups it favours, while terrorising social activists through arbitrary arrest and detention. Media freedoms will be curtailed and the manifestation and promotion of Tatar culture will become difficult and dangerous.
It is to be hoped that the international opposition to the occupation of Crimea will have a positive outcome. For this though leaders must acknowledge that, as with the occupation of Georgia, mere statements of condemnation have little effect.