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‘For Russia, Crimea is just a military base’ Meduza’s interview with Tamila Tasheva, Ukraine’s new Presidential Representative in Crimea

Source: Meduza
Ernes Sarykhalil

The office of the Permanent Representative of the Ukrainian President in Crimea has been around since 1992. Before 2014, the agency’s main job was to make sure the Crimean authorities were adhering to the Ukrainian Constitution. Now, of course, its role has changed; its current main purpose is to maintain contact between Ukraine and residents of Crimea, providing services such as document assistance and consulting. Meduza spoke with the current Representative, Tamila Tasheva, about the agency’s work, Crimea's history and future, and whether the sanctions that followed the Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea have been effective.

Who is Tamila Tasheva?

Tamila Tasheva was born in Uzbekistan to a family of deported Crimean Tatars. In 1991, when she was five years old, her family returned to the Crimean peninsula. Tamila attended school there before going on to study Eastern languages at Simferopol's Tavrida National V.I. Vernadsky University, where she graduated in 2007. After that, she moved to Kyiv, where she worked in a variety of fields, including publishing, show business, and public service. In the spring of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, Tasheva and her friends launched the Crimea SOS initiative. The project’s goals included helping Ukrainian and activists and journalists escape to the mainland, finding missing persons on the peninsula, and providing support for political prisoners and their families.

In 2019, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appointed Tamila Tasheva Deputy Leader of the Ukrainian Presidential Representation in Crimea, and in the spring of 2022, he promoted her to Presidential Representative.

The office of the Permanent Representative of the Ukrainian President in Crimea was created in 1992. In other parts of Ukraine, the heads of the regional governments function as presidential representatives, but Crimea, as an autonomous republic, had its own parliament and its own council of ministers. The Presidential Representative was established as a separate government agency to ensure that Crimean leaders didn’t make any laws or decisions that contradicted the Ukrainian constitution. Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the Presidential Representative has been based in Kyiv.

— On April 25, you became Ukraine’s Presidential representative in Crimea. What happened to your predecessor?

— We planned the rotation for February 25 in coordination with the president [of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky], but on February 24, a full-scale war began, so my appointment was delayed.

[My predecessor] Anton Korinevich is joining the diplomatic service. He already represents Ukraine in the International Court of Justice, so he’ll continue his work in that field.

— Your work revolves around Crimea, but you’re based in Kyiv. How does that work?

— The fact that we’re not in Crimea is not our office's fault or Ukraine's fault — it’s the fault of the occupier-country, Russia, which annexed our territory in 2014. In Crimea, the presidential representation provided a connection between locals and the central authorities. It saw to it that the local authorities didn’t violate the Ukrainian Constitution or Ukrainian laws.

— What kind of work do you do right now, with Crimea out of Ukrainian control?

— Our first priority is to maintain communication. People in Crimea have maintained very close contact with Ukraine. Practically everyone [Crimea’s 2.3 million residents] who has been on the peninsula since the occupation began has a Ukrainian passport and birth certificate. And Ukraine recognizes them as its citizens and guarantees their rights.

We process citizens’ appeals — there’s a hotline and a mailing address. In the last two years, we’ve gotten more than nine thousand appeals.

— What do people usually write about?

— When visa-free travel to the EU was opened to Ukrainian citizens, a lot of Crimean citizens wanted to get biometric international passports so they could travel freely in Europe.

Sometimes we get requests for death certificates in the Ukrainian format — that’s usually related to inheritance procedures. We also get applications for Ukrainian birth certificates, because people want a better future for their children. Residents know they’re living on occupied territory and that their children are going to have very few opportunities in Crimea. They write to us about recovering their documents, getting pension documents, and employment history documentation.

Almost nobody in the world recognizes degrees from Crimean universities. So their graduates enroll either in Russian or Ukrainian ones. Since 2020, Crimean graduates have had the right to enroll in any Ukrainian university on preferential terms — they don’t have to take any standardized tests.

In 2019, we updated the checkpoints on the administrative border between Crimea and Kherson. [Until Kherson was occupied by the Russian army,] people could go there to order Ukrainian credit and debit cards, get new Ukrainian passports in the form of ID cards, or get new passports for international travel.

Making sure everyone is aware of all of these things in Crimea is part of our job, too. On one hand, we inform Crimea residents about the work the Ukrainian authorities are doing, and on the other, we keep Ukrainians informed about what’s happening in Crimea. No matter how much Russia might want to sever the ties between Crimea residents and Ukraine, they didn’t just disappear in 2014. And these ties are strong.

— What else do you do?

— We solve legal issues. We helped pass a law that protects Crimeans’ rights, and we helped repeal a law that created a free trade zone in Crimea, which played right into oligarchs’ hands. We successfully got that repealed in 2021. [We also helped pass] a law on indigenous peoples in Ukraine, one on political prisoners, and other. That’s part of the work we do, although we’re not a legislative body.

We do outreach work. Since Russia’s large-scale invasion on February 24, there’s been less attention on Crimea, the focus has shifted. But we’re trying to keep it on people’s radars; we’re working with journalists and public figures.

In 2019-2021, our power was expanded; now we work with international partners as well. Of course, the Foreign Affairs Ministry has the mandate to work with foreign partners, we understand that. But we work with embassies, we prepare analyses for resolutions that then get passed by the UN General Assembly. After the Crimea Platform summit was established, we effectively became its national office.

— Are the Crimean sanctions part of your work as well?

— We don’t compile the lists. That’s the job of the president, the SBU [Ukrainian intelligence services], the Cabinet of Ministers, and other agencies. But we actively monitor human rights violations in Crimea, which ultimately leads to personal sanctions against Russian judges, prosecutors, and investigators.

— Why didn’t Ukraine fight back in Crimea in 2014?

— Russia took shameless advantage of the situation. Ukraine was weakened, the army was in an abysmal state, and there were very few soldiers in Crimea. Ukrainians were still in mourning over the deaths of the Heavenly Hundred, and the temporary government wasn’t even completely formed yet. Many law enforcement officers in Crimea held pro-Russian views and joined the enemy.

But I wouldn’t say Ukraine didn’t fight back at all. On February 26, 2014, there was a massive pro-Ukrainian rally in Simferopol. And you remember the slain Ukrainian soldier Serhiy Kokurin. The idea that Crimea didn’t put up any resistance and that everybody supported Russia, that it was “taken without a single drop of blood,” is a lie.

— How many people have left Crimea for the Ukrainian mainland since 2014? And why did people leave if there wasn’t active fighting going on?

— Russians in Crimea were following the same plan they’re following right now, albeit less aggressively. First soldiers came in [to Crimea], then they started kidnapping journalists and expelling foreign correspondents from the peninsula, blocking Ukrainian TV networks, and persecuting Ukrainian activists. The result is that the largest wave of migrants occurred during the first six months of 2014.

The second wave began later, in 2015-2016, when they started repressing businesses. They revoked people’s licenses, permits, land, and facilities. Everyone who was unable to run a business under those conditions left.

Ukraine’s Social Policy Minister recently reported that about 53 thousand people have left the peninsula in the last eight years. I’m confident the real number is higher, because that only includes the people who registered as migrants. Everyone who didn’t need to register, who didn’t need financial assistance from the state, didn’t register. I think about 100 thousand people left Crimea. You also have to take into account that the Mejlis, the self-government body of the Crimean Tatars, called on them to stay in Crimea if possible, because Crimean Tatars don’t have another homeland.

— What is life like for former Crimea residents in the mainland? Does the state provide assistance?

I can’t say life is great for the migrants, because forced relocation always disrupts a person’s social ties. But the government does provide assistance to the maximum extent possible; there’s a preferential mortgage program for migrants, and they receive temporary housing when they first move. That’s the case for all migrants, not just people from Crimea. Because while 50-100 thousand people left Crimea, about 1.5 million people have already left eastern Ukraine, where there were ongoing active military operations in 2014-2015.

But most painful for me to think about are the migrants who left Crimea in 2014 and bought apartments or built homes in Irpin or in Bucha, in the Kyiv region. They’d just begun to live decent lives, and then the Russian army came for them again. And then we learned about all of the atrocities that were committed there.

— Whose lives have gotten better and whose have gotten worse in Crimea since 2014?

— You see, that’s not as important as the fact that people have begun living in fear, they’ve lost their freedom. Sure, some people started doing better financially than others and others started doing worse. But you can no longer go to a protest rally with full confidence that nobody will grab you and bring you to a basement somewhere. That they won’t put you in jail for 20 years on flimsy terrorism charges.

And if you want to talk about finances, the “windows” out of Crimea have not worked out. People invested huge amounts of money, part of which was stolen. A lot of journalists have published investigations about this.

Sure, they built an airport, the Tavrida Highway, and the Kerch Strait Bridge. But now we see how the bridge and the highway are being used by the Russians to deploy troops to conquer more Ukrainian land. By February 24, the number of Russian troops in Crimea had gone from 32 thousand to 42 thousand people; the number of military vehicles had grown, too. The Crimean hospitals are currently packed full of injured Russian soldiers, and the Crimean morgues are full of dead Russian soldiers. It’s impossible not to notice how civilian infrastructure is being used to achieve military goals. They’re even trying to send Crimean doctors to newly occupied territories so they can treat injured Russian soldiers there.

In late February, we held the Days of Crimea in Lviv. And when Russia launched its first missile strikes on Ukraine’s cities, the missiles came from Sevastopol or from the Black Sea. The assault on southern Ukraine is being carried out completely from the peninsula.

On April 1, Russia began a recruitment campaign. It started there, on the Moscow-controlled peninsula. Throughout the entire occupation, about 34 thousand Crimean residents have been drafted. Some of those people are currently fighting against Ukraine. The Russian authorities claim they’re not sending conscripts into the war, but they are forcing them to sign contracts and then sending them to the war. For Russia, Crimea is just a military base, a bridgehead for moving further into the Donbas. The Russian authorities could care less about the lives of regular people in Crimea.

It’s also the case that Crimeans’ quality of life has fallen because of sanctions, which are still active, even if they’re not working in quite the way we’d like. People can’t use their bank cards to pay and can’t access regular banking services. Under the Ukrainian government in Crimea, there were about 70 banks. In 2014, thirty Russian banks initially began operating in Crimea; now there are only five or six. They all fled because they’re afraid of sanctions.

— Do you consider the sanctions a mistake, a hit against your own people? Same with Ukraine’s water, trade, and energy blockade of Crimea. Haven’t those things turned people against Ukraine?

— We can’t ask the whole world to stop trading with Crimea, stop investing there, and stop partnering with Russian companies that operate on the island, while continuing to live as we did before, importing goods and supplying power and water as if nothing has changed.

As for the citizens, of course not everybody’s pleased. But it’s an occupation, and Russia is guilty for that, not Ukraine. Living in occupied territory is difficult. All of the Crimean residents I talk to regularly understand that and blame Russia for the discomforts.

The sanctions affect Crimeans’ lives, but they’re aimed first and foremost at weakening the Russian economy and affecting Russian citizens. And in my opinion, it’s long past time for Russian citizens to work up the courage to take to the streets and ask their leaders why they’re incurring losses from sanctions, why they’re subsidizing Crimea, and why their army captured the territory of a sovereign country.

— What was the sentiment in Crimea in 2014? Russian propaganda’s main argument is that Crimeans really wanted to be a part of Russia.

— The idea that the Crimean population was overwhelmingly pro-Russian is a huge myth. Sure, part of the population was sympathetic to Russia. But how many of those people were there? Let’s look at the results of the last local elections. The most pro-Russian party, Russian Unity, only won about 4 percent of the vote in Crimea in 2010 [the party was led by Sergey Aksenov, who was appointed head of Crimea in 2014], while the most pro-Ukrainian party, Qurultai-Rukh, won 7%. So the party most supportive of Russia won three seats out of a hundred, and the one most supportive of Ukraine won five. If there really was strong anti-Russian sentiment, that would have shown up in the election.

— Is it true that Ukraine was planning on terminating the agreement that allowed Russia to base its navy fleet in Crimea in 2014?

— There weren’t any official steps or any legislation about it, but there was some political debate, it was being discussed, because people were holding protests. People protested in 2010, when [Ukrainian president from 2010-2014 Viktor] Yanukovich signed the Kharkiv Pact, extending the period Russian could base its fleet there by 25 years — to 2042.

— Vladimir Putin has stated that if Ukraine joins NATO, it might start fighting to retake Crimea. Do you think that's possible?

— The goal of NATO membership is enshrined in the Ukrainian Constitution — there’s nothing to argue about there. But NATO is a defensive alliance, not an offensive one. It’s very strange that we’re being accused of planning to attack somebody. What we want from NATO is defense.

According to both President Zelensky and Ukraine’s publicly released Strategy for De-occupation and Reintegration of the Peninsula, Ukraine is seeking the return of Crimea by political and diplomatic means.

Of course, there are questions of security, and after the peninsula’s de-occupation, Ukrainian soldiers will of course enter the territory before any civilians. But what we’re seeking are political and diplomatic solutions. Even after February 24, President Zelensky said that we’d like to regain Crimea sooner, but we’re concerned about our citizens and we don’t want to create another warzone, we don’t want any blood, so we’re not going to seek a military solution for its liberation.

— Ukraine recognized Crimean Tatars as an indigenous group, but not Russians.

— Ukraine recognized Crimean Tatars, Krymchaks, and Karaites as indigenous groups. But Ukraine, for instance, didn’t recognize Ukrainians as an indigenous group because they’re a state-constituting group. Russians, like Bulgarians and Armenians, have their own state. They’re state-constituting people there, and Ukrainians are a national minority. All of these are international classifications. The Law on Indigenous Peoples [signed by Volodymyr Zelensky in 2021] protects groups that don’t have their own states.

— Do you believe Ukraine will regain Crimea in the foreseeable future?

— Of course I do. And I think that now, after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the de-occupation of Crimea will occur even sooner. Because Crimea’s de-occupation doesn’t just depend on our efforts, it depends on the situation on the front lines and on Russia itself. If the next regime that rules Russia isn’t an imperial one, control over the peninsula will return to Ukraine.

Today, I’m sad to say, Putin’s most popular opponents also have imperial views. Even the so-called liberals — and let me explain why I refer to them that way.

We in Ukraine say that Russian liberals “break down” when it comes to questions about Crimea and Ukraine. If a Russian liberal wants to teach Ukraine how to live, what alliance to join, and what language to speak, what kind of liberal is he? If he says that the Crimea issue is “not so simple,” it’s a “tough question,” or “let’s conduct a referendum” after all of these years of occupation and a mass migration of Russians onto the peninsula, then he’s an imperialist, too.

Russian liberals also tend to “break down” when it comes to sanctions. They say that it’s Putin who’s guilty, and that regular Russian citizens don’t bear any responsibility. As a result, they say, sanctions that affect the lives of Russian citizens need to be canceled. Sorry, but that’s wrong. Citizens also carry responsibilities for the actions of their president and of their army. The purpose of sanctions is to make people open their eyes, to make Russians feel that their government and their army is doing something wrong. And to encourage people to take to the streets.

Essentially, the future of Crimea depends largely on who takes power in Russia after Putin — and whether that person is an imperialist or not.

— How many Russians have moved to Crimea in the last eight years, and what’s going to happen to those people if Ukraine regains control over the peninsula?

— We don’t have exact figures, because Russia doesn’t reveal them. According to Article 49 of the Geneva Convention, an occupying power cannot transfer part of its civilian population onto occupied territory — a resettlement like that can be declared a war crime.

But we can make inferences from indirect data, from expert estimates, and from data provided by the occupation administration itself. In Sevastopol alone, the population has doubled in the last two years as a result of newcomers from Russia, and the rest of Crimea has grown by about 400 thousand people. We believe the growth has amounted to at least half a million people over these eight years.

What will happen to these people after the war? Nobody’s going to forcibly transport them to Russia in freight trains like Stalin’s government did to the Crimean Tatars. Foreigners who came to our territory will either be allowed to leave on their own or will be required to obtain a residence permit if they have a legitimate reason to do so. For example, if a Russian citizen marries a Ukrainian citizen, he has the right to obtain a residence permit.

And as far as Crimeans with Ukrainian passports, if they haven’t committed any crimes, haven’t violated anybody’s human rights, and haven’t violated their oath, then they have nothing to worry about. Anyone who worked in a government position, a leadership position, or in the public sector for the occupying administration will be barred from holding those positions in the future. These aren’t empty words; we’re currently working on various models and issues of transitional justice.

— As far as I know, there’s a working group currently drafting amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution regarding the status of Crimea, including the autonomy of Crimean Tatars. What is the gist of the changes?

— Indeed, this is an old discussion, but these rules haven’t yet been codified into law on the legislative level. In other words, this is all still being discussed, but I’ll give you my opinion. The Law on Indigenous Peoples is just the first step towards resolving this issue.

The idea is that in the 1990s, Crimea was made autonomous not on the basis of its indigenous people’s right to self-determination, but on a territorial basis. And that was a mistake, because the rights of indigenous groups were not protected. That’s why we’re currently discussing the need to give Crimean Tatars national-territorial autonomy.

Let me reiterate: [Ukrainian is planning to give Crimea national-territorial autonomy,] not national-cultural autonomy [, which is what Russia proclaimed it was giving Crimea after the annexation]. That doesn’t mean anything but extra money for traditional dances. Giving it cultural autonomy isn’t much different from creating an NGO. What we’re talking about is national-territorial autonomy and an expansion of rights.

Before the first annexation of Crimea by Russia in 1783, Crimean Tatars made up 90 percent of the Crimean population. According to the 2001 census, Crimean Tatars made up only 12%. The Crimean territory was colonized back then, and today it continues to be a Russian colony. We need to protect Crimean indigenous people’s right to exist and to thrive; we need to rectify this historical injustice.

Crimean Tatars’ self-governing bodies will be recognized on the state level. There will be quotas for Crimean Tatar representation in Crimean government agencies, from the central to the regional level. Children will be able to study at school in the Crimean Tatar language.

And there’s one more point I want to make: decisions affecting Crimean Tatars shouldn’t be made without the participation of Crimean Tatars themselves. I’ll give you an example. In the early 2000s in Bakhchysarai, the government opened a market on the territory of an ancient Muslim cemetery, where sacred Crimean Tatars had been buried. We’ve been trying for years to get the market moved, and it’s led to some altercations. Crimean Tatars need to have veto power in decisions like these.

— As far as I’ve heard, the constitutional amendments being discussed would revoke Sevastopol’s special status.

— Let me say again that all of this is still on a theoretical level. But in my personal opinion, which doesn’t reflect any official discussions with anyone, Sevastopol’s special status should be revoked. Because Sevastopol received it exclusively due to the fact that it was the site of a foreign navy base. Once Crimea is returned, the foreign fleet will no longer be there, of course. There will be a Ukrainian fleet, Ukrainian flags, and Ukrainian captains. So the question of a special status will simply be irrelevant.

— Ukraine’s negotiating group has proposed the question of Crimea’s special status be discussed again in 15 years. How would that help?

— It’s important that the topic of Crimea has returned to the discussion at all. Until 2022, the Russian Federation didn’t want to participate in any negotiations about the status of Crimea at all. I remember their reaction to the first Crimea Platform summit. The Russian authorities were just hysterical about the fact that we’d raised the topic on an international level again.

Now, Crimea is on the negotiating table again. Whether or not a solution takes 15 years, the fact we’re discussing it at all is important. I don’t believe the Russian Federation will sign any documents on this. Vladimir Putin has said that “the Crimean question is closed.” And President Zelensky has said that he won’t compromise on territorial integrity, including that of the Crimean Peninsula.

Interview by Andrey Yanitsky

Translation by Sam Breazeale