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Years ago while still in Moscow, in the course of trying to analyze and understand the motives behind different actions of the Russian authorities, I tried to seek the opinion of various people in Moscow – both those close to power and the opponents, who often command the intellectual heights in the dispute. One of the interesting topics in the early years of Mr. Putin reign, was the subject of the quiet Russification of Crimea. The pattern was exemplary for Russia’s foreign policy. In those days I had no idea, that the issue might end up with a imaginable “Bulgarian” tag.

 

It was obvious, that the Kremlin would not chew the loss of the peninsula. It launched an offensive and a plan of economic conquest, including mass purchase of land and properties, expanding the numbers of the permanent Russian residents, including holiday makers. Back then, Russian banks had a free hand operating in Ukraine and mortgage loans for summer house purchase in Ukraine and Crimea were routine practice. Moscow’s business and political elite were the true landlords.

 

Crimea is not uniquely important just for Putin, it has been the pearl on the crown of Russian Tsars, who fought endless wars and sacrified millions of Russian lives.

 

The only difference today is the choice of “weapons” – hybrid warfare, property and asset acquisition and ‘green’ men in the last and most visible phase.

 

The incumbent Russian Tsar managed to secure his stronghold on Crimea long before he annexed it. In spite of the nominal Ukrainian sovereignty, the Kremlin succeeded in infiltrating and controlling vital governance structures at local level using the inherited Soviet networks. On D-day this played a crucial role.

 

Many Russia experts claim that had it not been for the Russian paratroopers and the fleet deployed in the peninsula, the annexation would not have been impossible. This is a highly superficial argument.

 

Russification has been made the cornerstone of Russian expansionism over the centuries. It covered not only territorial gains, military and institutional terrain, but also linguistic and religious aspects in attempts to subdue local resistance. A history text book case has been the Russification of Volga Bulgaria – a never ending story in the last 4 centuries. Targets of Russification, over time, have been Ukraine, Moldova, Finland, Poland, the Baltic states and many other states. A notable post-war example has been the Kalingrad region, where Moscow is still struggling with the legitimacy of its rule in the context of Germany’s unification.

 

Where Russia has not managed with a territorial take over – it left behind a plethora of Russophile offshoots, that have been used to open channels of influence and dependence. In more modern times Putin made the resurgence of Russian imperial ambitions beyond the borders of the country the epitome of his rule. Russia borders with itself – the catch phrase at the Kremlin. It has been a center piece of its domestic policy too, reversing Boris Eltzin decentralization drive.

 

Russification does not feature only inbound dimensions. It is a prime lever in Moscow’s hybrid foreign policy toward the so-called ‘Near Abroad’ and the post-Soviet space. In Central Asia attempts to consolidate Kremlin’s ethnic base and independent networks of influence via the Russia-speaking minority have largely failed. Kazakhstan serves as a prime example for Putin’s demise, resulting in a dramatic drop in the conversion of Soviets to ethnic Russians.

 

Russian emigration in the EU has been met as mixed blessing. EU governments have dramatically shifted priorities from an all-welcome business-only-matters cynical approach (typical for London’s reaction to the murder of Litvinenko) to total opposition, after the Scripal case and Cambridge Analytica. More EU governments finally grasp that Russian money are trailed by Russian agents of influence, Russian secret services and destructive Russian practice with corruption being the top export commodity.

 

The recent conviction of the GRU agents in trial over the failed coup attempt in 2016 in Monte Negro shed some fresh light on the mode of operation and the role local Russian diaspora plays in Kremlin’s politics. Soon after Monte Negro become an independent state Russia launched a blended business-tourism-immigration offensive in an attempt to thwart Podgorica’s drive for EU and NATO membership. Oleg Deripaska poured billions of dollars in acquiring the main industrial asset of the country – the aluminum smelter plant. Russian tourist numbers peaked, more buying properties and setting up permanent residence base in this country with just 600,000 citizens.

 

Moscow made it no secret that it aimed at using its foothold and translate its grip into a naval base. Following the recent events, local authorities not only blamed the Russian Federation, but the attitude of the indigenous population to all Russian-speaking people changed dramatically.

 

It is not a coincidence that the Monte Negro story never made headlines in Bulgarian media. So did the Bulgarian Scripal analogue – the Gebrev case, which has been met ice cold by the Bulgarian prosecutor.

 

Just before the annexation of Crimea, the behind-the-scene networking within the Russian ethnic group in Crimea, thrived on Soviet-era legacy – where a substantial part of the population faced choices translating their Soviet past into new Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, etc. identity. The Soviet mindset connected most Ukrainian oligarchs’ loyalty with Moscow, not Kiev, preempting fragile efforts to generate a sense of belonging to the Ukrainian state. The number of Russian passports to Ukrainians increased with Crimeans enjoying a special treat.

 

Quietly and slowly – the events on the peninsula evolved within their in-built logic, aided by pro-Moscow political elite members and oligarchs in Kiev, most of whom had a unremitting bond to ‘mainland’ Russia.

 

It would be an exaggeration to assert that the central Ukrainian government was in the dark on what had been going on in Crimea. With few notable exceptions, many in Kiev opted to trade personal benefits with Moscow instead of consolidating the country’s integrity base and assert its sovereign rights.

 

There was little doubt that the top brass at the Russian Army and the General Staff was seriously concerned with the need to renegotiate and encumber in international legal form Ukraine’s consent for the lease of its naval and air bases. Despite the fact that the last lease agreements, before the annexation in 2014, signed by Presidents Yanukovich and Medvedev  in 2010, extended the term by 25 years to 2042.

 

Vladimir Putin was shocked by the Orange Revolution, which profoundly changed his mindset and course of action, turned him into a self-asserting, cynical and aggressive statesmen. Such transformations are nothing new to Kremlin rulers – which have persistently struggled with chronic governance deficits at home. Putting the country on war footing, pointing the finger at external enemies, beefing up patriotic propaganda has always been the first port of call for Russia’s rulers at times of trouble.

 

The war and its inherent violence has been perceived as the universal remedy, aided by the readiness of Russian people to endure unparalleled in Europe levels of human sacrifices in the name of His/Her Majesty. It is no accident that Russian Tsars have willingly offered their services and used troops as cannon fodder, to help relatives in Europe, seeking to crush riots and uprisings.

 

The price Russian people have paid a huge cost, unthinkable for normal Europeans, that seem mindboggling – tens and hundreds of thousands, even  millions of dead and missing – just to sustain the myth of the infallibility of the leader and the imperial status of Russia.

 

It is not any different today, Russia’s foreign policy has expanded its instrumental base adding energy and most recently the emigration weapon.

 

The above reflections were provoked by a FB exchange with a colleague, well versed in the deepening demographic crisis in Bulgaria and the doube bottom of Bulgarian nationalism – the inconsistency between the genuine and tangible threat of unchecked immigration and the corresponding policies of the Bulgarian government.

 

Even Pope Francis felt its his duty to highlight during his visit the need to address the issues associated with the “demographic winter” in the EU and Bulgaria in particular. His message was conveniently buried and forgotten as it contrasted dramatically with the current modus operandi – refugees are the enemy – nationalists need to be in power.

 

It is likely that both the executive, legislative and judicial branches – have been in possession of a demographic experts’ report, that alleges that there is a dramatic shift in the ethnic and demographic map of Bulgaria. Instead of reacting, they have preferred to keep a lid on the story and pretend – nothing happened – keeping the public ignorant. The authors of the alleged report on the ethnic minorities in turn have decided to remain silent, afraid to risk public funding and carriers.

 

End of part one.

 

By Ilian Vassilev

 

The Quiet Russification of Bulgaria – Risks, Opportunities and Consequences – Part Two

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