The recent visit of the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to Crimea showed everyone that Russia will remain firm on its positions, but the fact that it was the “younger” member of the tandem to go to the newly acquired “historically Russian” lands seems to leave space for negotiations.
While on the international level the annexation of Crimea poses more questions than answers, for Russians everything is as clear as a day. The majority of the population welcomed the annexation, considering it to be the restoration of historical justice and a sort of reconstruction of the motherland. It is interesting to note that even those who do not consider themselves staunch supporters of Vladimir Putin, are enthusiastic about this very case of Putin’s power affirmation. His decisive attitude toward the West in general and the United States in particular made people feel once again that they live in a strong country. The Gorbachev policy, highly unpopular in Russia, aimed at finding a compromise with the West by all means, even against Russia’s interests, has been always considered a weakness, the memory of which is still strong in Russia. The events in Ukraine have revived the historical and traditional feelings of Russians to be surrounded by enemies, which as centuries passed by became a natural condition and a part of self-identity, which serves as a sort of consolidation factor and guarantees the inner stability and government legitimacy.
Russians would rather prefer living in this condition than see their leader “flirt” with the western powers. Thus as far as Putin’s legitimacy inside of the country is concerned, it could not, but to be reaffirmed.
The revival of Russian nationalism has divided the society in two parts: the religious Christian Orthodox part and those nostalgic of the Soviet past. At first glance they seem to be opposite, but their interests coincide when it comes to the imperialistic ambitions. In order to satisfy them Russians are ready to pay a high price. As Alexey Kudrin, ex-minister for the finance, stated “the cost of the independent foreign policy” which Russia is conducting will be a zero GDP growth in 2014, “but it is important to understand that this decision cannot be estimated only economically”, says Kudrin, “this move is hugely supported by the population and until it does not see the real cut of the personal income, it is ready to accept this price”.
In fact, after the initial euphoria, it will not be long before the consequences arrive. The budget debt of Crimea is around 55 billion rubles (1.1 billion euros), while the support of the region in terms of investments, aids and salaries adjustments to the Russian levels, according to the Russian Finance Ministry will require 343 billion rubles (6.86 billion euros), which Russia is going to cover from its own budget. For Russia, which see a huge fall in foreign investments itself, this might be a significant cost, which will hardly be possible to cover even if a controversial project of creating a gambling zone in Crimea is realized.
It would be wrong to say that the entire population is favourable to this development. There were two significant episodes that showed the dissent:
The first are the scandals with firing prominent journalists and scholars that made the blogoshere explode in comments on censorship’s comeback. The most resonance cases are those of an Editor-in-Chief of Lenta.ru (the most famous on-line magazine in Russia) and a Professor of MGIMO University who published “inconvenient” articles on Ukrainian crisis. The central government did its best to distance itself from these cases to the point that a governmental Commission on Liberty of Expression was sent to the University in order to investigate the case. After a short while the discussion seemed to be exhausted.
The second episode is the manifestation in support of the sovereignty of Ukraine, organized by opposition in Moscow on March, 15th. Even though the exact number of its participants remains unclear (police officials state 3.000 people, while the opposition affirms 50.000 ), the fact speaks for itself. The problem is that only Moscow, with its density of population, is able to organize this kind of protest, for the rest, Russia is a very dispersive country and the echo of this manifestation, will soon die away, exactly what we witnessed with the Bolotnaya manifestation after the president’s elections.
Another important aspect is that in absence of a real parliamentary opposition, the Russian opposition might be considered the one that emerged from the Bolotnaya manifestations, with its most prominent leaders Navalny and Udaltsov. Though since the very moment of its emergence it was obvious that the opposition was far from being homogeneous, the Crimean question has signed a decisive schism and showed its fragility. While Navalny was suggesting Americans the names to impose sanctions upon, Udaltsov was expressing his complete support of the annexation of Crimea. No doubt Putin will only benefit from this situation, since this division will ultimately weaken the Russian opposition, already cast off from the political scene. At the same time the political parties represented in the Parliament often express radical and nationalistic opinions, which the government cannot allow itself to express openly, but which are rather popular with population. For example, the leader of LDPR (Liberal-Democratic Party) Vladimir Zhirinovsky suggested Romania, Poland and Hungary shared the western part of Ukraine, while Russia, affirms Zhirinovsky, should not stop in Crimea. These statements, welcomed by applause at the Parliament, question the very existence of the Ukrainian Statism.
The last but not the least is the issue of the Crimean Tatars, traditionally anti-Russian and nationalistically orientated, which constitute 15% of the population of the peninsula and the Russian government has to deal with them. Even though the ex-leader of Medzhlis (the biggest NGO of the Crimean Tatars) Mustafa Dzhemilev has promised jihad and Chechen scenario to Putin, the actual leader and the community in general seems to be much more collaborative and cautious at least for now. The situation there is attentively monitored by Russian Muslims. Thus in the beginning of March Muslim religious leader of Tatarstan visited Crimea, the President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov is following the events and is ready to go to Crimea; and finally 80 tons of humanitarian aids were collected in Dagestan for the Crimean population. Muslim republics in Russia have vast autonomy inside of the federation and since nobody wants a religious conflict in Crimea, giving to the Crimean Tatars a large autonomy could be a way out. At least the Putin’s statement that Crimea will be the land of “Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars, but never of nationalists” seems to guarantee that.