Civil Rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea After the Russian Annexation

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Crimea was annexed by Russia in March of 2014. This annexation followed the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, and took advantage of the country in a troubled time of transition and rebuilding. Since annexation, life has changed substantially for people living in the Crimean Peninsula. The three main ways this has happened are through the limitation of their civil liberties, the eradication of their national political system and rights to be a part of that system, as well as increases in both the cost of living and the income gap.

Civil rights and freedoms are considered a basic human right in many countries, and their specific areas of protection are typically outlined clearly. When Russia absorbed Ukraine in 2014, laws and restrictions were immediately implemented which infringed what much of the Western world would consider “basic human rights” within its new territory. Among others, the most impacted areas of liberty include freedom of speech and belief, rights to associate and organize, rights to autonomy and mobility, and the rule of law.

Free speech and belief are severely limited in Crimea. Russian article 280.1, created before annexation in December of 2013, criminalizes “public, online calls aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.”[1] Following annexation, this specific section has been interpreted to justify the criminalization and persecution of Crimean Tatars who speak openly against the annexation process and its results. In the specific case of Crimean reporter Mykola Semena, an article supporting the Blockade of Crimea earned him 5 years in jail and a spot on the national terrorism watchlist.[2] Laws driving cases such as this have created an environment of fear in Crimea. The Federal Security Service of Russia further capitalized on this by illegally forcing Crimean citizens to collect and report data on their pro-Ukrainian counterparts in the peninsula.[3] That means Crimean residents who are unhappy with the annexation must not only hide their opinions from the government, but also from their neighbours and friends – effectively silencing their speech.

Freedom of belief in the area has been largely restricted, too, after Russia forced all 1,500 of Ukraine’s religious organizations to reregister after March 2014 in order to retain legal operating rights (own land, publish writing, open bank accounts, etc.).[4] The reregistration process was not simply intended to be a minor inconvenience for Ukrainian religious groups – it was used as a filter, to severely limit, and in some cases eradicate, entire religious groups from operating. Any religious groups tied to the Crimean Tatars are completely barred from reregistering, while the Ukrainian Orthodox church was physically and legally threatened by Russian law enforcement while also having much of their property confiscated.[5] This has resulted in a steep decline in the number of these Crimean-native religious organizations, although the right to practice a religion independently still remains intact.

Russian enforcement has also restricted Crimean ability to organize public assemblies and associate, publicly or privately, with specific groups. Following the Euromaidan protests between 2013 and 2014, Russian authorities in Crimea implemented strict regulations to prevent similar reoccurrences. These included a mandatory formal application process to hold a peaceful public assembly, designated assembly areas, and assembly density maximums.[6] According to The Crimean Human Rights Group, rallies planned for July, 2018 against increasing the retirement age, the price of household utilities, and the price of petrol were all forbidden without cause by Russian authorities, and prompted a police investigation of the protest leaders which resulted in torture, imprisonment, and lifetime bans from Crimea.[7] The restrictions and punishments extend to one-person protests as well, where one month in 2014 saw over 70 people tried in court, in a year where 14 activists went “forcibly missing”.[8] It’s clear that, although technically allowed, even some of the most peaceful of assemblies in Crimea are not tolerated and can lead to devastating consequences for their leaders and participants if their views oppose Russian activities.

Since annexation, Crimeans have faced challenges with mobility and autonomy as well. In an effort to legitimize the annexation, Russian authorities have offered Crimean citizens Russian Passports. Those who refuse to not only accept a new Russian passport but also to give up their Ukrainian passport are threatened with losing their property, jobs, and the freedom to travel to the rest of Ukraine.[9] Authorities, through force and control, have made noncompliance a nearly unbearable option.

The unjust legal threats and punishments highlight another infringed right: Crimean citizens, often, do not benefit from equal treatment under the law. In fact, Russia has laws in place that explicitly and severely discriminate against Crimean Tatars. Statutory law was updated to include bans on Ukrainian-based media companies, collapsing an industry as well as restricting the flow of first-hand information.[10] Further laws deem Crimean cultural events illegal, and children can no longer learn in their native or heritable languages in the education system.[11] Despite a ruling from the International court of Justice in 2017 which required Russia to abandon such laws, they remain in force to this day.

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Marginalized groups in Crimea have seen their rights legally eroded further under the Russian regime, as well as de facto discrimination from new community members and authorities. Although decriminalized in the 1990s in both Ukraine and Russia, LGBT+ citizens’ rights have eroded been severely restricted by a law enacted in 2013 in Russia, which bans the propagation of information by any organization which promotes nontraditional relationships.[12] Women in Crimea have also experienced discrimination surrounding employment issues and childcare services. On top of dismissal for taking maternity leave, Crimean mothers are not receiving the state’s support in social benefit areas that they enjoyed while under Ukrainian legislation. These include being provided with state insurance for the first three years of a child’s life, compensation payments, childcare support, and in some more extreme cases, a maternity leave.[13] For these groups, life was definitely better under Ukrainian rule.

In the process of absorbing Crimea and retaining power over the area, Russia has severely and blatantly infringed basic human rights of the Crimean people. Through explicit legal motions and otherwise, Crimeans, especially those opposed to the annexation, face environments of oppression and ostracization. They are told what they can believe in, where they can go, what they have rights to, and what country they belong to.

Driving the loss of civil liberties is the effect that Russia has had on Ukraine’s political system. Following annexation, Crimean politics effectively ceased to exist – at least, in the capacity that they did prior. By implementing and using unbalanced elections processes, limitations that strategically underrepresent and improperly represent Crimeans, and changing the structural hierarchy of the governing process, Russians have taken the power to define the nation’s path out of the hands of Crimeans and left them politically voiceless.

The Republic of Crimea is comprised of 75 seats.[14] The most recent election for seats in the parliament took place in September, 2014, while Crimea was firmly under Russian control.[15] This resulted in a number of significant implications for the elections. To maintain control over its citizens, Russia only allowed pro-Russian parties (those who supported the annexation) to run, thereby excluding all pro-Ukrainian parties which may have overturned the Russian rule once in power.[16] Ukrainian parties were excluded from the elections process. Crimean Tatars actually boycotted the first Russian elections, not voting to send a message that they would not participate in a system where true democracy cannot ring free.[17] The party in power in Russia at the time, United Russia, was able to secure 70 of the 75 available seats, with the remaining 5 won by the LDPR (the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) – proportions comparable to that in Russia at the time.[18] With their only voting options are pro-Russian or complete abstinence, Crimeans were intentionally robbed of their right to regain political power over their own country.

As well as Crimeans’ lack of party representation, many minority groups are underrepresented and some even barred from occupying certain government positions. The Mejlis, the governing organization of the Crimean Tatar people, was forcefully taken over and shut down on September 20th, 2014.[19] In April of 2016, Russian occupation authorities labelled the Mejlis “an extremist group” and the Supreme Court (Russian appointed) formally banned the organization all together.[20] Even pro-Russian women living in Crimea face challenges when running for positions in Parliament, significantly more than they did under Ukrainian government. Russian government organizations, including those governing within the Crimean Peninsula, is only comprised of 16% women – a significant decrease from over 20% in the Ukrainian government in 2018.[21] [22]

Further, although they make up a sizeable 12% of the population in Crimea, Crimean Tatar-born citizens have no seats in Crimean parliament – a drastic and sharp decline from the 14 of 98 seats they held before annexation.[23] Crimean Tatars also only represent 0.1% of state-funded authority bodies, including police, military, and related security forces.[24] The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights recommended that ‘the electoral system for the Parliament of Crimea should give better possibilities for the Tatars to be represented. This can be done by introducing proportional elements to the election system.'[25]

Combined with the notable decrease in representation for these groups, this indicates that there is a conscious and intentional effort being made to exclude certain members of the public from the governing bodies designed to represent and make decisions for them. Already marginalized citizens living in Crimea experience much more discrimination and political restrictions than they did under Ukrainian government, and due to a systematic lack of representation in positions of power, can do very little to change that for themselves.

Even if the population was accurately represented in its government, the structure and hierarchy in place in the Russian government presents another set of insurmountable challenges for newly-annex Crimean citizens.

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