Crimea Would Face a Grim Future under Russian Rule

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Staff Editor

The international community has rightly condemned the upcoming Crimean referendum on annexation by Russia, citing its illegality and patently unfree and unfair circumstances. Less attention has been paid to the human rights conditions Crimea’s residents would face under long-term Russian rule.

Even if one ignores the troubling developments on the peninsula since Russian troops seized control, the recent histories of Russia and Ukraine leave little doubt that Crimeans would enjoy fewer political rights and civil liberties as part of the Russian Federation.

At no point since Vladimir Putin took power in 2000 has Russia received better scores than Ukraine in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report. In fact, Ukraine has maintained a significant lead since 1999. Even in 2013, the last year of Viktor Yanukovych’s increasingly authoritarian presidency, the country still earned a “freedom rating” of 3.5 (Partly Free) on a 7-point scale, compared with Russia’s 5.5 (Not Free).

There are many factors behind this gap. Despite the Kremlin’s current propaganda, Ukraine has been largely free of the sorts of ethnic strife, terrorism, and brutal counterinsurgency campaigns that have battered Russia since the 1990s. The environment for civil society activity has long been far better in Ukraine, with Russian nongovernmental organizations facing a series of repressive laws, arrests, prosecutions, and assassinations. The media landscape in Ukraine has also been less subject to centralized control than in Russia, as reflected in the two countries’ scores in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report.

But the most dramatic divergence between the two countries is in the area of political freedom and elections. Notwithstanding its many flaws and the tumultuous episode of the 2004 Orange Revolution, in which a fraudulent election outcome was successfully blocked by a protest movement, the Ukrainian political system has sustained a genuine diversity of parties and produced multiple nonviolent rotations of power among rival factions.

By contrast, the Kremlin under Putin has stage-managed a sham democracy of phony opposition parties, rigged balloting, media manipulation, and suppressed dissent. Moreover, there has been no rotation of power at the executive level since the collapse of the Soviet Union: Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as a chosen successor, and he remained the paramount leader during Dmitry Medvedev’s nominal 2008–12 presidency.

Given this record, Sunday’s fundamentally illegitimate vote in Crimea would only be the first of many if the region were absorbed by Russia.

An even worse fate could await the people of Crimea if it comes to be governed like Transnistria, the Russian-backed separatist enclave in Moldova, which receives a freedom rating of 6.0 in Freedom in the World. Transnistria, with its combined majority of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, broke away from Moldova with Russian support in 1992, citing fears of oppression at the hands of Moldova’s Romanian-speaking majority. Since then, Moldova has substantially improved its performance on political rights and civil liberties, boasting a multiparty system, regular rotations of power, and a freedom rating of 3.0 (Partly Free).

Meanwhile, Transnistria languishes under Russian domination, an economic monopoly, tightly controlled media, and international isolation. Even Russia does not recognize its claim to independence, presumably holding out hope that it can use the region as leverage to control Moldova as a whole. This strategy suffered a setback last fall, when Moldova—unlike Ukraine’s Yanukovych—resisted Russian pressure and initialed an Association Agreement with the European Union.

Although policymakers, diplomats, and scholars have struggled to establish consistent rules on when separatism is either permissible or advisable, the case of Crimea should not be difficult to assess. None of the most common pillars of an acceptable separation—legality, agreement with the national government, a free and fair plebiscite, some traumatic history of oppression that permanently alienates the local population from the national state—are in place. The facts on the ground point instead to a unilateral act of military conquest by a neighbor, something that no government should deem acceptable.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin continues to exploit the confusion surrounding separatism and sovereignty to obscure its aggressive actions, and some governments may be tempted to swallow at least some of Moscow’s claims in order to rationalize acquiescence. To cut through the fog, any hesitating democratic leaders should keep in mind the likely long-term impact of an annexation on the human rights of the Crimean population.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia user Panonian

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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