The Crimean town of Yalta is not just a sleepy seaside resort fallen on hard times, but once the site of a historic conference that shaped Europe for half a century. As citizens of the town flock to a referendum on whether the peninsula should gain more autonomy from Ukraine or be annexed by Russia, the ghosts of the Yalta Conference are returning to haunt Crimea.
The day of the referendum, March 16, Yalta is in a relaxed mood. On Roosevelt Street – named after former US president Franklin Roosevelt who attended the 1945 Yalta Conference – a steady flow of voters visit the polling booths at the ferry station, from which in the summer months Black Sea cruise ships dock, bring valuable revenue to the impoverished town.
The only thing out of the ordinary today is the strength of the wind gusting through the city. The “winds of change,” jokes Pavel Schnitke, 45, on his way to cast his vote in a referendum that provides no option for the status quo, has not been agreed with the central government in Kyiv and is regarded as illegal by the international community.
There are no overt signs of voter incentivization, and most citizens of Crimea that bne has spoken to since the referendum was declared two weeks ago, have stated their intention to vote – and indeed for reunification with Russia. Electoral authorities have put voter turnout in Crimea at around 64%, news agency AFP says.
The only perk to voters comes from a karaoke stall offering free singalongs for those who fulfill their “civil duty”. Most choose to abstain from the offer, but the song chosen by Svetlana – a 45-year-old cook with two children – might be symbolic, although she says it’s not: a hit from the Russian rockers Time Machine, the song’s lyrics, “Another twist in the road, and the motor roars – what will it bring us – will we soar or will we fall?”
Most voters believe they are about to soar. “Life will be better,” reckons Oksana Buryachko, a 23-year-old accountant, who went to vote with her daughter. “More stability, higher pay, one will finally be able to regard oneself as a person.”
“Crimea was Russian and will be Russian, and is soaked in Russian blood,” says Sergei Salo, 55, an engineer. “Russia is where my family is, and we need Russia back here now to rescue us from the 20 years of Ukrainian craziness. We are very grateful to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin that he has finally answered our call.”
“It was very surprising,” says Pavel Schnitke, speaking of Russia’s out-of-the-blue takeover of Crimea that started three weeks ago. “A very pleasant surprise as well. We thought they had forgotten about us. Ukraine is at an economic dead end, things at least cannot get any worse if we join Russia.”
Apart from the Crimean Tatar minority, estimated at around 15% of the population, the overall impression is that there is indeed an absolute majority in Crimea in favour of joining Russia, although there are no reliable exit polls or opinion polls. The last opinion poll data on the question from 2012 showed only 41% in Crimea in favour of joining Russia, but predates the option becoming in any way realistic.
But the extraordinarily tight timeframe of the referendum, the lack of fully-fledged election observation or of political opposition, and a large number of reported irregularities in the run-up to the poll, mean the results of the referendum will not be taken seriously internationally or indeed in the Ukrainian capital.
Indeed, the Crimean secessionist government don’t appear even to be taking it seriously themselves. Apart from giving only two options – a very high degree of autonomy formally within Ukraine, or full-scale absorption into the Russian Federation – Crimean officials have publicly stated they expect 70% of voters to decide in favour of Crimea’s joining Russia. Indicating that the result is a foregone conclusion, Crimea’s controversial prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, declared March 17 would be a public holiday to celebrate the results.
“The referendum may be very rushed and probably even unnecessary, but we are happy to be going home,” says the 64-year-old pensioner Svetlana Solovieva.
Ghosts of Yalta
Yalta was the site of the crucial Yalta Conference, where in February 1945 the leaders of the US, UK and Soviet Union met to discuss the post-war order, as German armies retreated all over Europe and the end of World War II was only a matter of time. The Yalta Conference has become notorious for dividing up Europe into spheres of influence between the West and the Soviet Union that lasted for half a century.
Memories of the Yalta – or in Russian Crimean – Conference are kept alive by its venue, the museum complex in the splendid Tsarist-era Livadia Palace, perched on a headland looking over the Yalta bay – apart from the natural beauty of the town’s location, one of the main attractions that brings Yalta much needed tourist money.
On the day of the referendum, the palace is eerily empty, leaving visitors alone with waxworks of Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the negotiating table, so lifelike that someone might have pressed pause. “The locals are all voting, and there are no tourists currently for obvious reasons,” explains a warden with a shrug.
“Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt basically agreed: the Crimean Conference system would last 50 years and what would come after was unknown,” explains Serhiy Jurcenko, Ukraine’s leading historian of East-West relations and a researcher at the Livadia Palace museum. “International systems in conditions of communications and other 20th century factors last only one or two generations.”
Therefore, this referendum on March 16, engineered by Russia’s military takeover of Crimea, might mark a new international order dawning that still lacks any “Yalta Conference” to define its contours, some believe. “Tragically, we are entering a new period with some important differences, but many similarities to the Cold War,” former US ambassador to Russia, scholar Michael McFaul, wrote on March 16. “Protection of European countries from Russian aggression is paramount again.”
How did we get here?
The current Crimean conflict results precisely from Russia’s failure to find a role for itself in a post-Yalta Europe, argues Putin’s former economics adviser, now one of his foremost critics, Andrei Illarionov – the only international expert to predict that Putin would move on Crimea after “losing” Ukraine to Europe.
According to Illarianov, Putin’s early foreign policy 2000-2003 also aimed – unsuccessfully – at joining the West. “Putin’s personal conviction was that for Russia the most secure and comfortable place would be membership of the western alliance,” Illarianov said in a lengthy interview in Ukrainskaya Pravda in October 2013. “Putin said on several occasions that he wanted Russia to join Nato – both privately and in public. For one and a half years this was Russia’s official position.”
Putin also secretly knocked on the EU’s door, according to reports at the time. “A few weeks ago, when President Putin’s visit to Brussels was prepared, his officials asked me what I thought of a possible Russian accession to the Union,” then EU president Romano Prodi told Dutch paper De Volkskrant in 2002. “There had been a poll that showed that more than 50% of Russians favored joining the EU. When President Putin was visiting us, he asked again. I immediately made clear to him, no, you’re too big.”
“EU representatives said quite bluntly that they would never regard Russia as a candidate for EU membership,” recalled Illarianov.
“A number of events caused a radical shift in Putin’s world view,” Illarionov went on to explain in the interview. “First of all, the EU’s rejection of potential Russian membership. Secondly, Nato’s rejection of potential Russian membership. Thirdly, the abrupt break-up between [former president George W.] Bush and Putin over Iraq. Then came the Georgian Rose revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.”
Putin’s paranoia about a lack of security guarantees in the post-Yalta world only grew as the EU and Nato expanded deep into the former Soviet bloc and planned further expansion. “And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact?” Putin notoriously railed in a no-holds-barred speech at the 2007 Munich security conference.
In 2008, then president Dmitry Medvedev proposed a pan-European security agreement – effectively a new Yalta Conference – but it was declared dead in the water. “The Putin leadership gained confidence and came to believe their country was not being treated as the great power they still considered it to be,” says Phil Hanson of Chatham House. “This chip on the shoulder is crucial, and I don’t see that there was much we could have done about it.”
The ousting of the pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in late February and the prospect of Ukraine – including Russia’s centuries-old Crimean navy stronghold of Sevastopol – being fast-tracked to EU membership may have been the last straw for Putin. “Putin can’t get a new Crimean Agreement, so he now wants at least to have Crimea,” says Andrei Klimenko, chief editor of Yalta-based Black Sea News.