Life Under Occupation

Crimean Gangland: Putin’s Seaside Mafia State

Russian-occupied Crimea is awash with human-rights abuses, but a new report points a creative (nonviolent) way forward.

06.23.15 9:25 AM ET

In March 2014, two Crimean men stopped by a train station in the port city of Sevastopol to pick up a package of Ukrainian flags and were quickly apprehended. Blindfolded, their arms tied behind their backs, they were subjected to daily beatings, violent interrogations, and electro shock. The screams of torture around them indicated that the number of captives was growing. Andriy Schekun and Anatoly Kovalsky told Human Rights Watch they believed their assailants included Russian security agents—professionals referred to as “Russian investigators” by the local collaborators. In the 11 days the men were kidnapped, Russian-led militias hastily organized a referendum with one option on the ballot, annexing the peninsula by a vote-at-gunpoint.

Under occupation Crimea has become a cesspool of human-rights violations, but a new report offers some hope. An international team of lawyers, working with Razom, the Ukrainian-American human-rights nonprofit, compiled investigations by Human Rights Watch, the U.N., and other leading organizations as well as accounts from journalists and Crimean residents, into a single reportHuman Rights on Occupied Territory: Case of Crimea. The 68-page report is conveniently structured to provide a clear legal framework for Crimeans and policymakers to bring Russian aggression to justice. It also provides a section called “Human Rights Protection Guide,” which includes peaceful-resistance tactics, including some used during the Soviet Union. 

Lawyers who worked on the report told The Daily Beast from Kiev, where they are presenting it to the Ukrainian government and civic society groups, that the international legal system is an underutilized resource in the war against Russia. The report comes on the heels of courts in Belgium and France ruling to seize $1.8 billion of Russian government assets to pay Yukos shareholders. Yukos, the Russian oil giant owned by opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was taken over by the Kremlin in 2006; Khodorkovsky was sentenced to prison on trumped-up charges. After a decade of arbitration, Russia ignored court rulings last year, including a $50 billion verdict in The Hague.

“Russia doesn’t comply with international law,” says Matheus de Moura Sena, a lawyer on the Crimea report. He’s quick to point out that lawsuits seem to take a very long time, to non-lawyers anyway. Bringing legal action against Russia, de Moura Sena argues, can be successful in shaking investor confidence in the country, and that alone can make an impact. “With [lawsuits] you increase the cost of investment in Russia, the cost of loans made to Russia. You have this side effect if they don’t pay the reparations,” he says. 

Will the Yukos verdicts inspire new cases against Russia? Ivanna Bilych, another lawyer on the Crimea report, was emphatic in her response. “That is exactly the point,” she says. “That’s what I was trying to tell the Crimeans.” Bilych says she got the idea for the report last summer, which was when the Yukos verdicts were first announced.

The report also examines the legal history of Russia’s historical claim to Crimea. It attempts to put to rest the oft-cited myth that Nikita Khrushchev gifted the peninsula to Ukraine—out of the goodness of his heart or a special fondness for the country. At the time, such transfers were “routine and done administratively” in accordance with the law. None of the documents for the Crimea transfer bear Khrushchev’s name or signature. Who sends a gift without signing the card? A showboat politician like Khrushchev, who famously banged his shoe like a gavel in the U.N., would certainly want to get credit for such generosity.

The tragic story of the Crimean Tatars is also highlighted to show that Russia’s role of occupier had a precedent on the peninsula. Tatars, who had lived in Crimea for centuries and were brutally mass-deported in 1944 under Stalin, around half of their population dying in the process, were finally allowed to return to their ancient homeland when the Russian empire collapsed in 1991. After Ukraine became an independent nation, it gave Crimea the status of an autonomous republic. The Tatars lived there in peace until last March.

The strangling of democracy in Russia has been exported to Crimea. The list of human-rights abuses against Tatars and anyone who opposes or is suspected of opposing Russian rule is a long one. The report mentions several cases of torture, disappearances, illegal searches and seizure. There have been several attacks on religious freedom, namely Ukrainian churches and Tatar mosques; the Russian Orthodox Church, an instrument of the Kremlin today like it was during the czar, is the only religious institution free from persecution. Journalism has been outlawed; the crackdown on freedom of speech includes the closure of media companies like ATR, a television network that broadcasts in the Crimean Tatar language. The courts are in shambles, with only Russian citizens allowed to be judges; at least 15,000 judicial cases are in legal limbo. There’s no recourse, especially when so-called “self defense” militias rule with impunity.

On the bright side, the report outlines steps that can be taken to protect those in Crimea. According to international law, this is the responsibility of Ukraine as much as it is Russia’s. The report recommends that Ukraine, with the help of the international community, establish a special court to investigate alleged human-rights abuses. The mix of old school and digital resistance tactics that the report recommends—samizdat (the underground printing and smuggling of publications) to the creation of a database collecting eyewitness accounts—can also aid Crimean residents.

“[The database is] a very powerful tool of its own,” says Bilych. “It tells the occupying power that we’re working on [building legal cases].” One can’t help but wonder if Russia today, like Russia during the Cold War, could be driven into collapse not by an arms race but through expensive litigation. For a White House that’s set on a “banks not tanks” strategy, sinking Russia with legal actions must certainly be an attractive option.

“[Russia drags] things out so long that everyone gives up,” Franz J. Sedelmayer, a German businessman who successfully sued Russia for $6.8 million after a 20-year legal battle, told The New York Times. “You cannot give in. Russia only respects the language of strength. Nothing else works.”