In a serious blow to the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin recently accepted the resignation of the second Moscow-appointed governor of Sevastopol since 2014. This city is the most pro-Russian part of Crimea, and has its own governance separate to the rest of the peninsula. But Moscow has had trouble extending applying its usual template for control of Sevastopol.
In the rest of Crimea, local elites are relatively stable and tame to the wishes of the federal centre. But throughout their period in office, both governors in question faced serious problems with the Sevastopol elite, which was not opposed to Putin or United Russia as such but which is led by “People’s Mayor” Aleksei Chaly. The businessman and scientist was also, in fact, acting governor of the city for just two weeks in April 2014. In a recent interview, he revealed some previously untold elements of the Crimea annexation of February 2014, namely that he and others in Sevastopol pressed ahead with the referendum and pro-Russian demonstrations that year without necessarily being sure that the Kremlin backed them, and without knowing how it would respond. It was during that period that Chaly was “elected” leader of the pro-Russian movement, which eventually spread to the Crimean capital, Simferopol. And the main original Russian sources of military pressure on Ukraine were Russian soldiers from Sevastopol.
The Chaly factor was crucial at the time of the crisis, and has remained crucial since. Tensions between him and Moscow began early. Chaly was sidelined during Putin’s visit to Crimea back in August 2015. Even then, opponents in Russia complained that Chaly was too active in trying to pressurise Moscow, including through the media. The presence of an active local leader with his own agenda and base is undesirable for Moscow. Its aim is to break maverick spirit of the “hero-city” and to establish the sort of regime it is used to establishing elsewhere: one in which local elites are quiet and obedient. But Chaly and his followers in Sevastopol and Russia represent an interesting ideological evolution that has some similarities with Zelenskiy’s phenomenon in Ukraine in their anti-establishment and anti-post-Soviet mentality.
The confrontation now brewing between Moscow and Sevastopol is one that some Moscow-based experts are declaring will have tremendous implications for the whole of Russia. The city is gearing up for two elections – first for the city council in September this year and the governor election in September 2020. According to local experts, Moscow’s strategy is to prevent the emergence of a majority critical of it in the local parliament, and to still try to apply its usual methods to “freedom-loving Sevastopol.” In preparation for these elections, Chaly supporters created a coalition of four non-parliamentary parties, but on 22 July they were banned from participating in the elections. The reaction of Chaly’s followers was swift: they called for demonstrations. Moscow thought one solution would be to invite Chaly to head the United Russia list, but he withdrew his candidacy from the governor election altogether. Moscow’s logic in banning the coalition is clear: it does not want to allow other parties to challenge the United Russia monopoly by changing the make-up of forces that are allowed to exist within the “system” opposition (the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, the Community Party, and Just Russia).
Moscow has found that it cannot merely impose the same sort of repressive federal regime that exists in Russia
A ghost hovers over the city. If Crimea has the unfinished business of looking after its Tatar community, in Sevastopol there is a “spectre of Ukraine”. Both sides in this confrontation have similar grievances, but about different people. Chaly’s supporters believe that former Ukrainian politicians, including of the Yanukovych variety, will return to power under the United Russia banner. Meanwhile, United Russia supporters claim that Chaly and his followers behave like “Maidaners.”
In Sevastopol, Moscow faces an existential dilemma. It has found that it cannot merely impose the same sort of repressive federal regime that exists in Russia. And the philosophy of Chaly’s followers in Sevastopol, and of his supporters in Russia, is not the usual sort of basis for challenge that the Kremlin has dealt with in the past. They call themselves patriots; criticise the liberal opposition and accuse them of being agents of the West; and they are both anti-establishment and anti-corruption. For them, it is undeniable that Crimea is a part of Russia, and they demand a genuine share of power in the region – and in Russia too.
Any disturbance to civil life in Sevastopol creates a dangerous situation for what is after all Russia’s main Black Sea naval base. Russia is therefore seeking to find the modus operandi between two dimensions military and civil. It has been trying to find this since 2014, however. And so, if it does not devise a solution soon – and if the elections look like they will not go its way – the likelihood is that Moscow could well end up extending full federal and military control over Sevastopol.
Ridvan Bari Urcosta is a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations at Warsaw University, where he specializes in Russian Foreign Policy and particularly Russian Grand Strategy in the Middle East.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.