Crimea goes to the polls: Non-recognition and the Russian Duma elections

It is only by doggedly pursuing non-recognition – and by mainstreaming this belief – that there can be any success in the future. 

Russia’s State Duma elections, taking place on September 18, will offer Crimeans their first chance to vote in a Russian parliamentary election. Crimea alone does not have the power to determine the result, but who it votes for and to what extent will be an indication of the motivations and desires of Crimeans some two and a half years after annexation. Will Crimeans come out overwhelmingly in support of Putin’s United Russia,  and which way will the Tatars vote – if at all?

The results of the Crimean Regional Elections in September 2014 provide some indication of the likely course of the Duma elections. Only two parties received enough votes to gain representation in the Crimean Parliament — Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, with 70 percent, and the Liberal Democrats, with 8 percent.

Support for Putin’s party was even higher than had been expected. In the 2011 elections the party took only a marginal majority of 53 percent across the whole country. It is possible that the high 2014 result was due to “reunification” euphoria. Nevertheless, it is clear that Crimea has become United Russia’s electoral backyard ― its “safe seat”.

There are 22 political parties contesting the Duma elections, but only nine of those have candidates in Crimea. Opposition parties Yabloko and PARNAS are actively boycotting the Crimean seat on the grounds that Duma elections in Crimea are illegitimate. This principled position could hurt both parties’ overall result; such is the cost

Just before it was black-listed as a foreign agent, the Levada Center issued poll results forecasting another United Russia win. Unfortunately, the reality for democratic opposition is tough to stomach. Yabloko and PARNAS are only set to win a combined total of 3 percent of the vote.

The international community has held firm in its non-recognition policy of any Russian presence in the peninsula. As such, the OSCE will not be sending an election observation mission to Crimea. The Ukrainian government has encouraged the international community not to recognise the elections in Crimea, and some countries have made statements to that effect.

The Duma elections and the Tatars

If Ukraine has any direct means with which to protest the elections in Crimea, it is through the Mejlis – the governing body of the Crimean Tatars. The Tatars have suffered persecution since the annexation of the peninsula, and historically by the Russian state. This means that they represent a small but potentially powerful spoiler faction in the elections. Since the banning of the Mejlis in January 2016, the Crimean Tatars have become the wildcard of internal politics. They represent approximately 15 percent of the Crimean population, and pro-Kremlin politicians are out to win their hearts and minds.

The head of the Mejlis — Refat Chubarov — has issued an official statement asking his fellow Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians to peacefully protest against the occupiers by boycotting the elections. In response, other pro-Kremlin Tatar organisations and leaders have emerged, trying to convince followers to take part in the upcoming elections.

The official position fleshed out by the Tatars remains consistent with their position on the annexation referendum and the regional elections. They will not vote, as doing so would legitimise annexation. Deputy Chairman of the Mejlis, Ilmi Umerov, stated that “It is absolutely clear that the majority of Crimean Tatars will not take part in the elections. We urge them to do that. The organisation of elections in the occupied territories will result in recognition of the invalidity of Russian elections and these are huge costs [for Russia]”. It is unclear whether there is an anti-boycott constituency among the Tatars, but it seems unlikely, even despite the attempts of pro-Kremlin parties to make a dent in their principled position.

The minority of Tatars that do go against the line of the Mejlis to vote will be faced with a difficult choice. Difficult because the parties supporting non-recognition are not running candidates. The only choice for Tatars going to the polls would be to vote for pro-Kremlin parties that are fundamentally opposed to their interests. It is safe to assume that, faced with the lack of any viable alternative, the vast majority of Tatars will uphold the boycott.

As the same time the dominant feeling among the Tatars is that they have been abandoned by Ukraine and by the West. With few feasible options for resisting the annexation or reversing it, they are left in the frustrating position of boycotting elections – something that it is often difficult to justify in terms of impact, and which many, after two years, simply see as inaction. The challenge for the Tatar leaders will be to maintain native support for the boycott despite many Tatars’ justified frustration with the lack of tangible progress.

The divided opposition

It is hard to see a way forward for parties which oppose the annexation of Crimea, given the overwhelming public support in Russia for “reunification”.

Yabloko is leading the charge of the opposition by aggressively indicating that “we believe Crimea belongs to Ukraine, its annexation is illegal and should be cancelled.” Yabloko does not recognise the results of the 2014 referendum and wants to resolve the situation by conducting an internationally recognised and monitored referendum that does not take place under the watchful eyes of the Russian military.

PARNAS has avoided directly stating its position on Crimea, but party leader Mikhail Kasyanov openly held a meeting with the leader of Crimean Tatars National Movement, Mustapha Dzhemilev, in January 2016, in which he vowed to return to Crimea again. Russia has placed Dzhemilev on its wanted list for attempting to return to Crimea after being exiled.

The democratic opposition’s tough stance on Crimea is prompting stern reactions from within the Russian political establishment. Pro-government factions are portraying the democratic opposition as traitors or as member of a western fifth column. The Crimean question in the upcoming elections adds fuel to the fire. The opposition is doomed to lose, but they know that. They are also acutely aware that the fulfilment of short-term interests through votes can lead to long-term irreparable damage in the fight for a Ukrainian Crimea.

The pressure on the opposition will cost them support from the electorate, but in the name of continuing the campaign of non-recognition. United Russia won’t be losing much sleep over the positions of Yabloko and PARNAS, and has more pressing issues to deal with – its suffering economy, the unpopular reforms it needs to push through, and an increasingly volatile internal political and social situation — issues which could eventually spell its downfall. 

While the opposition is not going to have a big impact in these Duma elections, it might have more of an impact in the next presidential elections. After all, annexing Crimea was Putin’s own doctrine.

It is unrealistic to say that the opposition has any chance of beating United Russia in the medium-term, but by continuing to push their agenda they can begin to build support and enhance their visibility in political life in Russia.

Progress on the Crimea issue can only be achieved if the opposition have a firm, concrete, and coherent strategy, based on democratic principles. Unfortunately, recent scandals with some opposition leaders and conflicts of interest within the democratic opposition have undermined their attempts at achieving success. But it is only by doggedly pursuing non-recognition – and by mainstreaming this belief – that there can be any success in the future.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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