Four years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it is more than obvious that the peninsula has been forcibly integrated into the contemporary Russian identity. All “achievements” claimed by Moscow since March 2014 are linked to the “reunification” of Crimea with Russia. Precisely because of that, the date of the 2018 Russian presidential election was chosen to be March 18. It is intended to symbolically send a message to the Russian electorate that March 18, 2014, was the day when Russia became “great again.” From the very outset, Vladimir Putin has taken full responsibility for the Crimean operation in 2014. Thus, March 18 is, in a way, the day when the president demonstrated his strong will. It is not merely a coincidence that Putin visited Crimea on March 14 (Kremlin.ru, March 14) and may even be going to Sevastopol on Election Day (Sevoborona.info, March 11).
The upcoming election raises two main critical questions. First, is the matter of legitimacy of the election, and second—the role of the Crimean Tatars as an electorate for both Ukraine and Russia. International law is quite clear about the illegality of the upcoming Russian presidential election in Crimea. Indeed, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union will not be sending observers to Crimea (Ukrinform.net, December 25, 2017).
Another intense issue is the Ukrainian and Russian political attention to the 2018 presidential election in Crimea and the role of the Crimean Tatars. The Ukrainian reaction was straightforwardly stressed in Kyiv’s appeal to the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the EU and other international organizations and countries not to recognize the election in Crimea as legitimate (Interfax, March 1). Additionally, the Ukrainian foreign ministry threatened Crimeans that participating in the election as members of election commissions would result in sanctions against them by the Ukrainian government (Ukrinform.ua, March 11).
The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars (the executive-representative body of this nationality) has continued to demonstrate intransigence toward Moscow and is strenuously trying to influence the local situation in Crimea, especially the position of the Crimean Tatars concerning the election. The head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov, appealed to the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians living in Crimea that there should be “an absolute boycott of the election” (Tsn.ua, January 28). He has indicated that the main goal of Russia is to secure sufficient voter turnout in Crimea to demonstrate to the Russian people and the entire world that the population on the peninsula still supports Russia, as during the referendum in 2014. Chubarov pointed out that Russia would provide excellent turnout statistics by using workers of the Kerch Bridge and other temporary settlers in Crimea (112.ua, March 11).
For the Kremlin, it is extremely important to have some visible support from the indigenous people of Crimea. Moscow’s piecemeal strategy relies on the support of the indigenous people to provide sufficient justification for the annexation before the international community. However, until now it was in vain. The Kremlin understands that without pro-Moscow support from the Crimean Tatars, Ukraine could effectively claim that Crimea remains a part of Ukraine based on popular sentiment. Thus, the Russian authorities are doing everything possible to build a pro-Russian elite among the Crimean Tatars. And if the gambit succeeds, they hope to finally be able to close the “Crimean case.” For example, a recent controversial Kurultay (Assembly) of the Muslims of All-Crimea asked the Muslims of Crimea and the Crimean Tatars to participate in the Russian presidential election (Crimea.ria.ru, February 17).
In Russia, the Crimean question has two dimensions. First, is the symbolism and political correlation between Putin’s current domestic and foreign policies, many aspects of which are related to the annexation of Crimea and its consequences at home and abroad. Second, the election unexpectedly provided an opportunity for many experts and citizens to criticize the Kremlin regarding the occupation of Crimea, mainly through the open political criticism by presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak. On Russian state-run television, she has publicly come out in support of Ukraine’s position and rebuked the Kremlin for annexing Crimea, offering to organize a new referendum on the peninsula under international guidance. Sobchak stressed that she is ready to go to Crimea in order to speak with the Crimean Tatars and others unsatisfied with the Russian presence (Ekho Moskvy, March 6). However, the Ukrainian foreign ministry responded with a tough comment that such decision would be “political schizophrenia” (Nv.ua, March 7).
Nevertheless, Sobchak is demonstrating a kind of realism regarding Crimea and is trying not to lose a potential political position in the future. For instance, she credited Catherine the Great with making Crimea a part of the Russian Empire, alluding to a woman’s leadership in Russia, while emphasizing the importance of Crimea to the Russian identity (Crimea.ria.ru, January 30).
Crimea is a tough international problem with significant domestic implications for both Russia and Ukraine. Neither country is ready to make any concessions regarding Crimea, and both are trying to bring the Crimean Tatars to their own side. In a promotional campaign video, Putin answered the question whether Russia would ever make concessions regarding Crimea and Sevastopol with: “What are you, crazy or something? There are no such circumstances and there never will be” (TASS, March 11). Moreover, he stressed that the majority of the Crimean population voted for “reunification.” As such, bringing the indigenous people of Crimea closer to Russia is an important element of the Kremlin’s strategy to complete this reunification.