'It's ours' - Graffiti in Crimea.

Photographer: Yuri Lashov/AFP/Getty Images

Crimea's Happy Now, But for the Persecution

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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It has been 18 months since "green men" from Russia took over the Crimean peninsula, installing an alleged former gangster nicknamed Goblin to run it. How's that working out for people?

By all accounts most of Crimea's inhabitants are happy. They're happy not to be part of the war in eastern Ukraine, or of the unstable, semi-fascist Ukraine that they see portrayed on their Russian TV channels. Life may not be the economic nirvana they hoped for (tourism has dried up), but it's stable and the peninsula's ethnic-Russian majority are back in the Motherland.

For the minority, though -- the Tatars, Ukrainian speakers and those who didn't want to trade corrupt, chaotic, but more or less democratic Ukraine for corrupt and undemocratic Russia -- the move has been miserable.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe released a report on Thursday that paints the picture, often in numbers. They weren't allowed into Crimea, but that's part of the story: In Russia, interfering human rights organizations and international bodies are excluded, and Crimea is now Russia.

To be fair, the OSCE doesn't hide its view on Crimea's status (annexed, still part of Ukraine), so it was never going to be welcome. Still, the numbers that the group's researchers collected, and interviews they took from those who left Crimea, paint a picture of diminished religious, media and personal freedoms, as well as of lawless law enforcement and persecution.

At the time of annexation, says the report, Crimea had 1,400 registered religious organizations, and 674 unregistered (and mainly Tatar) religious communities. To be legal, these all had to re-register, a process the local authorities made as difficult as possible. As of last month, Crimea had 53 locally registered religious organizations.

Media organizations had to re-register by April this year, by which time there were 232 licensed to operate in Crimea. Before March 2014, there had been 3,000. Major news outlets in the language of Crimea's Tatars were shut down. Schooling in Tatar and Ukrainian languages was restricted, and kids without Russian passports have been unable go to school, the report says.

Businesses had to re-register too, a process made difficult for people who either didn't take or couldn't get Russian passports, or just for some reason were unwanted. By the end of last year, just under 13,000 Crimean businesses were registered, compared to 53,000 before annexation. Larger companies, owned by big Ukrainian businesses or the state were confiscated without compensation.

No doubt there's an element of natural house cleaning in all these numbers, but the report's anecdotal evidence suggests systematic discrimination. Tatars -- about 12 percent of the population -- came under extreme pressure to shut down their businesses, according to the report, as did pro-Ukraine media and the Kiev branch of the Orthodox Church.

Remaining in Crimea as a pro-Ukrainian can be unsafe, too. A Russian military court last month sentenced a pro-Ukrainian film maker from Crimea, Oleg Sentsov, to 20 years in jail on dubious charges of plotting terrorism. Local prosecutors have also used Russia's catch-all laws against extremism and separatism to prosecute dissenters. Yet there have been no investigations of the pro-Russian so-called self-defense groups, which have been accused of extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and torture during and after the switch to Russia, the OSCE says.

Insecurity can't explain this need to crush dissenters or persecute the long-suffering Tatars --Russia is highly unlikely to lose Crimea again. So it's depressing to see old reflexes grind out needless repression. Russia, after all, deported the Tatars en-masse to Central Asia in 1944. They were allowed to return only starting in the 1980s.

If a free vote on whether to stay with Russia were held today, with a fair campaign this time and no thugs or military patrolling the streets, a majority of Crimeans almost certainly would again vote "yes."

It is the repressive way in which Russia has followed up its acquisition of Crimea, like the covert way in which it first took control of the peninsula by force, which reveals the annexation for what it is.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net