Since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014, access to the peninsula has been severely restricted—including for relatives from mainland Ukraine and foreign journalists.
Crimea has, by and large, become terra incognita.
From March to May 2017, the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) conducted a survey that provides a rare glimpse into the public mood in the region (the full ZOiS Report is forthcoming).
The survey was conducted through individual face-to-face interviews and based on a representative sample of 1,800 urban and rural Crimean residents aged eighteen and older. A booster sample of 200 Crimean Tatars was added to ensure the sufficient inclusion of Crimean Tatars.
The survey reveals that there has been a comprehensive reorientation of the social and political linkages of the Crimean population. Only 12 percent of the survey respondents say that they have travelled to other parts of Ukraine since 2014, and 44 percent state that they have less contact now with family members based elsewhere in the country.
This question about general contact captures the impact on personal connections than on physical travel restrictions. The vast majority of respondents wish that the border between Kherson and Crimea would be easy to cross in both directions.
The Crimean population is generally inward-oriented: over the last three years, only 22 percent have travelled to Russia and 3 percent to other countries. There is a significant population exodus from the region: 21 percent of the respondents have family members and friends who have left Crimea since 2014 and 10 percent are contemplating leaving the peninsula. Moscow and other parts of Russia are by far the most preferred migration destinations. By comparison, living in an EU country holds little attraction for the Crimean population (less than 8 percent of those contemplating leaving Crimea).
About half of the respondents admit to having been taken by surprise by Russia’s actions in 2014. Interestingly, there is agreement among the Crimean population, including the Crimean Tatars, that successive Ukrainian governments had neglected the region. Roughly one third of respondents pointed to this neglect as the main cause of the developments in 2014.
Developments since the annexation of Crimea have further strengthened a sense of regional identity, encapsulated in the term krymchanin (Crimean), rather than self-reported identification as “Russian.” At the same time, regional and local institutions are trusted significantly less than national-level Russian institutions.
The majority of survey respondents agree with the statement that the different ethnic groups in Crimea currently live peacefully side by side. Twenty percent disagree “fully” or “rather” with this statement, thereby indicating both an uncertainty and unease with the situation at the moment that reaches beyond the Crimean Tatar share of the population (about 12 percent). This result is mirrored in the reaction to the ban on the main political Crimean Tatar organization, the Mejlis, by the Russian authorities: 20 percent “fully” or “rather” disagreed with this step, compared to 80 percent endorsing this policy.
The majority of respondents record an increase in price levels in Crimea since 2014. When the question about the economic situation was made more concrete with references to personal finances, the discrepancy between the general positive assessment of the Crimean and Russian economy and the everyday experience of the Crimean population becomes apparent.
Twenty-seven percent of the survey respondents say that they can only afford the most necessary things. The next category, chosen by 23 percent, captures those who say that they have money for food but struggle to buy clothes. Thirty-five percent report that they can cover everyday expenses but have to rely on loans for more expensive purchases. This answer is put in perspective by the subsequent category, chosen by 10 percent, who say that they can afford to buy expensive goods, but that buying a car is still beyond their means. Only 3 percent of the respondents described themselves as being in a position to buy a car.
It is clear that the sensitive political situation in Crimea does not make for ideal survey conditions, but this is not a reason for not listening to the Crimean population’s voice.
The extent to which answers to the politically charged questions regarding the status of Crimea reflect actual held beliefs is impossible to determine—86 percent of non-Crimean Tatars say they would expect the same result in a repeat referendum, compared to 52 percent of the surveyed Crimean Tatars.
The survey results are best understood as an indication of trends rather than exact measures. The Crimean Tatars remain more skeptical of the current regime. For the moment, Russia has opted for repression rather than active accommodation of the Crimean Tatars—a strategy that is bound to build up opposition.
The survey clearly spells out the severe disruption of links to the rest of Ukraine, limited travel to other parts of Russia, the absence of personal international reference points, and a near-complete integration into the Russian media sphere.
This combination makes any change in the opinions of the majority of the Crimean population on the annexation unlikely in the foreseeable future. However, it is also clear that the Crimean population’s high expectations in the Russian economy and trust in Russian (but not Crimean) institutions needs to be carefully managed by Moscow in view of the already strained financial situation of the majority of the Crimean population.
Gwendolyn Sasse is nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and the director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin.