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Svetlana Gannushkina: Notes of a Russian Human Rights Defender in Crimea

25 April 2014

Svetlana Gannushkina 

Svetlana Gannushkina:    On 19 April I returned to Moscow from Crimea. I had travelled there with Olga Tseitlina, our lawyer at the Migration and Law Network based in St Petersburg, Zhenya Bobrov and also Andrei Yurov, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council (an organization that I have left). When we departed from, and returned to, Moscow we went through passport control, but in Simferopol there was no passport control. Andrei Yurov helped us by providing us with a car and driver. But most of my contacts were my own, ones I had got from various people, not just from those within the sphere of human rights. Many civil activists have left Crimea for the Ukrainian ‘mainland’. Others have sent their children there, so that they can study at school in Ukrainian in a peaceful atmosphere. 

Zhenya, Olya and I stayed in a small Crimean Tatar village near Simferopol in a guesthouse. The owner is an old acquaintance of mine; she worked for the UN Refugee Agency. It took ten minutes to getfrom there to the centre of the city by car.

We spent two-and-a-half days in Simferopol and one day in Sevastopol. In these three and a half days we had 20 meetings.

The main problem for Crimea residents and also for the officials coming from Russia is the complete legal chaos and lack of information.

Employees of Russia's Federal Migration Service are accepting applications to refuse Russian citizenship and to acquire it, but they do not know what to base their decisions on.

There are long queues to submit documents. When passports are given to civil servants they, according to the law on civil service, are required to give up their Ukrainian citizenship. The body issuing the passports is called the "Federal Migration Service" without the word "Russia", and without indication of the territorial body issuing the passport.

Public sector employees and teachers in universities and educational institutions are also advised to give up their Ukrainian citizenship.

When they register for a Russian passport, their Crimean residency is indicated. We did not see any evidence to back the rumours in Moscow that Magadan or Murmansk residency is written instead. At the request of Mikhail Fedotov, chair of the Presidential Human Rights Council, head of the Russian Federal Migration Service Konstantin Romodanovsky had given an order that I be received by the local office of the Federal Migration Service. There I was asked to tell everyone that they were fed up with denying this rumour and the lies about the eviction of Crimean Tatars.

In Ukraine, unlike in Russia, it is not obligatory to register at your place of residence. Federal Migration Service staff say they are prepared to record the place of permanent residency and issue a decision on the basis of the documents submitted, but they also do not fully understand how they can do this. Since what date must a person have lived in Crimea permanently in order to get a Russian passport? Nobody knows the answer to this question. There was one case where this was question was taken to court, but the court established that the person had only just arrived in Crimea. According to the Federal Migration Service, there are many such cases.

According to data from the Federal Migration Service, since 15 April 170,000 of 250,000 applicants had received Russian passports. (However on 19 April Romodanovsky said the Federal Migration Service had already received 350,000 applications for Russian citizenship. This is implausible: one of these figures is erroneous.)

Only 20% of the population of Crimea, which amounts to 2 million people, have managed to submit applications.

Places in the queue are already being sold, some people are being seen without queuing. Migration officers are not giving any information to the public.

In the queue we were told that from 19 April documents will no longer be accepted from people who have no residence registration in their Ukrainian passport. Nobody has explained what this decision is based on, but people are very worried. We did not manage to check this rumour.

It is still unclear whether people can get a Russian passport and keep their Ukrainian citizenship. Crimeans have been told verbally that it is possible. However, the statement to be submitted when refusing Russian citizenship reads as follows:

"I, [full name], declare that I want to keep my existing Ukrainian citizenship (status of a stateless person) for myself and my minor children.

In connection with this I reject the recognition of myself and my minor children as citizens of the Russian Federation in accordance with Article 5 of the Agreement between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Crimea on the entry of the Republic of Crimea into the Russian Federation and the creation within the Russian Federation of new subjects (Moscow, 18 March 2014).

I have been given information about the legal status of foreign citizens and stateless persons, and of the need to obtain the requisite document, and also with the legal consequences of my decision".

In this way, the intention to keep Ukrainian citizenship means that Russian citizenship must be rejected. Moreover, people sign to say that they have been given information about their future legal status, whereas, on the contrary, they are completely unaware of the status of foreign citizens in Russia or about the documents they would need to have.

Zhenya Bobrov has appeared on Crimean television three times to explain Russian legislation. In these appearances he spoke about the legal situation of foreign citizens in Russia and about the legal consequences of non-compliance by foreign citizens during their stay and residency, liability for which is set out in the Administrative Code, which can lead to administrative deportation and a ban on entry to the country for 5 years, and also being held for up to two years in a detention centre until deportation.

Obviously, it is difficult to imagine that the same provisions will be applied to residents of Crimea who refuse Russian citizenship. This would mean that Crimeans who were born and have lived all their life in Crimea and have houses and property here will begin to be expelled from the territory of Crimea administratively. It sounds too absurd to be true, but that is what the law says.

But nobody has bothered to develop other laws for the presence of "foreigners" in Crimea.

On 18 April the deadline for applying to keep Ukrainian citizenship and rejection of Russian citizenship ended. It is not known what will happen with the rest of the people (see the attachment at the end of the text).

The queues in Simferopol for refusing Russian citizenship were huge. People slept near the office of the Federal Migration Service, kept lists so everyone would know their place and wouldn’t have to start the count all over again. At first the reaction towards us was negative, as if to say: Well, are you happy with what is happening?

But then people understood that we do not represent Mr. Putin and began to ask us questions about Russian law. If it is applied to them as it is to foreigners, then their situation will be unbearable. Those who refuse citizenship are category at special risk. According to the Federal Migration Service there are already 3,000 people in Crimea who have refused Russian citizenship. The Federal Migration Service doesn’t know whether to give them a permanent residence permit or one for temporary residence. There is no answer to this crucial question and no bylaws or regulations on this subject have been passed. There was also a suggestion that they could give Ukrainian citizens migration cards as would be given to foreigners who have just arrived on Russian territory.

There is also one more category – citizens who have neither rejected Russian citizenship nor to received Russian passports. Their behaviour is fully logical: we do not recognise the new authorities and will not play by their rules. There was also this formula: we will live like we lived before the occupation. This is also a group at risk: since they are being recognised as citizens of Russia by default, we can say that are already recognised as Russian citizens. At the same time, many of them now see their future and the future of their children in Ukraine. This is connected not just to their principled position of not recognising the annexation of Crimea, but also with the urgent need to continue with education, health care, and doing business in Ukraine, as well as in the EU and US. It is unlikely that a Schengen Visa will be issued to the holder of a Russian foreign passport issued in Crimea.

There are also those who simply think they don't have to hurry anywhere, there is no deadline to get a Russian passport– so they will wait and see what happens.

And finally, there are also the people in the countryside or in hospitals who maybe have not even been informed of the necessity to make a choice. Everything is happening with unacceptable haste. 

It goes without saying that people who have chosen to refuse Russian citizenship are the most active citizens in the Crimea. They have chosen consciously, understanding what they are risking, and preparing for resistance. Among them there are Russians and Tatars. These people are defending their dignity and their right to decide their own fate. The majority of the activists to whom I talked have refused to obtain Russian citizenship. They are the people who are most in need of help from human rights advocates. There are also some activists who do intend to get a Russian Federation passport, but who have not lost hope that the Crimea will return to Ukraine's jurisdiction. 

On the other hand, citizens who do not have residence registration in the Crimea and Sevastopol are keen to obtain Russian citizenship. I was approached by a man who came to the Crimea from Latvia ten years ago. He is not registered as living in the Crimea. He let a friend and his family, also Latvian citizens, come to live in his house. In that family, the husband is Armenian and the wife Ukrainian. They say that they couldn't live in her homeland in Vinnytsia because no one would give the man a job. People called him the 'Moscovite' because he couldn't speak Ukrainian. They heard about the possibility of obtaining Russian citizenship and so recently travelled to the Crimea. How the new government will act in such cases is unclear. Perhaps they would be willing to provide such a family with Russian citizenship, or maybe grant them asylum. These questions remain open.

I assume that the procedure for renunciation of Russian Federation citizenship was copied from the procedure defined by the law on Russian citizenship immediately after the collapse of the USSR. At that time, people who lived in Russia became its citizens by default if they did not refuse Russian citizenship within one year. However, this time people have been given only one month to renounce Russian Federation citizenship, and not even a full month at that. The first four offices where Russian citizenship can be renounced only appeared on 6th April, and four more offices were opened on 10th April. They are located in Simferopol, Sevastopol, Belogorsk, Bakhchysarai, Saki, Evpatoria and Feodosia. The closest office to Kerch, for example, is 70 km away. Many Crimean residents simply do not have time to make a reasoned choice, let alone to carry out the procedure.

While the procedure for refusing Russian citizenship was being introduced, new rules appeared. Now, both parents must turn up in person if they want to refuse Russian citizenship for their children. This has led to comic situations: a woman without a husband came out onto the street and asked a passing man to go with her to the office and pretend to be her husband. In the rush of processing applications, she managed to get away with it. For some reason, one of the citizenship offices began asking people who were refusing citizenship to bring two photographs with them.

In Simferopol there is one Ukrainian-language grammar school. It has very high levels of learning and teaching across all subjects. The language of the school is Ukrainian. Other schools sometimes have Ukrainian classes, but lessons are taught in Russian. Some people who quickly found their feet in Simferopol decided to close the school. Some parents asked for all teaching to be translated into Russian. There is speculation that this is being done under pressure. The struggle over the grammar school goes beyond the difficult situation of this one educational institution.

In schools, relations between pupils of different nationalities have become more strained. One boy complained that some boys had called him a crazy Ukrainian nationalist and beaten him up. One girl reported that she didn't want to sit next to a particular boy because he was a Crimean Tatar.

Anxiety about the possibility of holding religious services in Ukrainian is also testing the Kiev Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. We met with a member of the higher orders of the clergy. We were told about difficulties with the extension of the lease on the building where the church is located. This may lead to the parish in Simferopol having to close.

These examples illustrate the obvious inequality and discrimination regarding the Ukrainian language and religion. Special care and informed decision-making is now required to deal with these matters.

On 17th April there was a televised opinion poll during a programme about the rise in xenophobia. The results of the poll were as follows: 93% said interethnic relations have worsened, 5% said they had improved, 2% said there had been no change.

Lawyer Olga Zeitlin noted that the law enforcement system is paralysed and lawyers are very agitated. Judges are not able to release anyone from custody, nor extend their time in custody. It is impossible to issue reports on cases. The legal force of any judicial decisions taken now is questionable. All lawyers are having to attend special courses where they are lectured on famous Russian lawyers. Lawyers will have to take exams to confirm their status, although they had been promised that there would only be an interview. Of the two lawyers we spoke to, one had refused Russian citizenship. Generally speaking, that is not contrary to our law on the legal profession, but he fears that the interviewers will be biased against him.

Cases which are now pending will be treated by the courts in accordance with Russian legislation. But there's a fundamental problem with implementation of the principle of "no increased sentences at retrials" for cases where Russian Federation legislation has harsher sentences or new offences relative to Ukrainian legislation. It is also unclear how the decisions of courts involved with the appeal process will be affected. Does some legislation — Ukrainian or Russian — need to be repealed? There are problems with the extension of terms of detention, where to put people into custody, and the recognition of Russian citizens who are in prison in the Crimea.

The banking system has completely collapsed. Banks can not perform operations on the territory of Crimea and Sevastopol due to international sanctions. Residents are worried about their savings in Ukrainian banks — will their deposits be returned to them if they are recognised as Russian citizens? Will Crimea or Sevastopol fully compensate them for their investments in Ukraine or instead limit compensation to the minimum insurance amount in rubles?

Seeing the closed doors of banks and cash machines, people worry that they may lose all their savings and investments. Another problem concerns repayment of loans and mortgages, and payment of state duties such as customs duties.

What will happen regarding the continuation of medical treatment and postoperative follow-up clinics in mainland Ukraine for residents of the Crimea and Sevastapol? Can they continue treatment in Kiev, for example, once they have obtained Russian citizenship? There are no answers at present.

Will health insurance policies be issued on the same terms and conditions to Russian citizens and people who wish to retain Ukrainian citizenship? Will they still be provided with pensions and other benefits?

There is an extremely difficult situation regarding freedom of speech and the media who report a different point of view to the Russian authorities' official policy and who provide alternative information. A series of internet portals have already been closed, as have printed publications which presented different opinions ( "AN-Crimea", "Events of the Crimea", " Crimean time" and "Republic") . According to the Centre for Investigative Journalism, Russian legislation regulating the activities of journalists is less liberal than in Ukraine. In today's environment this will create an obstacle to the work of independent journalists and free media.

All land registries for registering property and land rights have been blocked. Access to the specialist databases for property accounting has also been blocked.

No property or land transactions can be carried out; buying, selling, bequeathing or donating a house, an apartment or a plot of land is impossible, as is obtaining a certificate of inheritance rights. Civil legislation in this area is unable to function, and indeed it is unclear which passport should be used for legal transactions: the new Russian passports or Ukrainian ones. Lack of information means there is a danger that criminals will redistribute property — conditions are ideal for this.

The public mood differs in Simferopol and Sevastopol. A poll on the street (not representative, of course, but still quite striking!) shows that people in Sevastopol are calm and pleased about what has happened. People there are more optimistic about the future. There's more order and there are only queues for getting Russian passports. The citizenship office there is managed by an employee of the Federal Migration Service who also gives advice on various legal issues. At another citizenship office, meanwhile, the number of people queueing exceeded 30 000.

We go along the shore of the bay of Sevastopol on a boat and see Russian ships, including a huge, 16-rocket monster. A number of berths which used to hold Ukrainian naval ships are now empty. Some Ukrainian naval ships have remained, but the rest have gone to Balaclava. Our tour guide talks about recent events as if recounting the historical events of two centuries ago.

The atmosphere is different in Simferopol. People tend to be resigned to what has happened, although there, too, many hope for a better life. Many talk seriously about the restoration of the Soviet Union.

They’ve been thoroughly hoodwinked, as people like to say nowadays.

“In Russia everything gets done properly – here it’s complete chaos. There’s Makeyevka-ites everywhere (Yanukovich’s followers), the corruption is terrible, and everything has fallen apart.”

(The “Massandra" Group, comprising a headquarters and nine subsidiaries with factories and state-owned farms, was nationalised by Ukraine and is now being taken over by the new authorities.)

A conversation in a pharmacy. I’m buying medication, and I’m surprised at how cheap it is.

“Only 22 rubles?”

“Do you think that's cheap?” asks the matronly woman standing behind me.

“It’s seven times dearer where I come from.”

“But your pensions are 10 times higher than ours.”

“How much is your pension?”

“1,600 hryvnias – 4,800 rubles.”

“Do you really think we get paid a pension of 48,0000 rubles?”

“How much do you get then?”

“Around 6,000 in the regions, and a bit more in Moscow.”

She doesn’t believe me.

I still happen to have a menu for a cheap restaurant in my bag – Canteen No. 1 in Sevastopol:

Salad – 4 hryvnias

Borscht – 8 hryvnias

Tefteli – 5 hryvnias

Homemade pelmeni – 10 hryvnias

Chicken cutlet – 12 hryvnias and so on.

We’d have to pay three times as much.

I can assure you that everything is delicious and the portions are generous.

The prices are about twice that in an expensive restaurant in Simferopol.

The men walking the streets dressed in camouflage and carrying machine guns are very polite. I ask:

“Are you from Russia?”


“Why aren’t you wearing your ranks and insignia?”

“Orders from the top.”

“You could be photographed.”

“That isn’t going to happen.”

“Why not?”

“That's against orders.”

One of our drivers said that they were stopping the situation from turning violent. He had gone for a walk with his grandchildren in the park for the first time in a month after they arrived in March.

A group of young women:

“That’s just the way our minds work – we need rules. My mother-in-law was number 917 in the queue for a passport. After a few days they were up to number 901. Three hours later, it was still 901. They said that people with tickets in the 700s were arriving late. They said she could pay, but she refused and handed over her documents after another few days.”

“If we stick it out, our children will get a good education and lead a normal life.”

“Our teacher saw the Russian curriculum – it’s much less demanding than the Ukrainian one.”

“The banks are closed because they’re branches of international banks. The Russian Sberbank is offering loan repayments. No one knows where the money's going. Some people are happy, they’ve decided that they don’t need to pay at all. But it’s impossible to take any money out of your account.”

“History is written by the victors. It would be ok if Putin was stronger than everyone else, but he simply took the Crimea just like that. The weak are eaten by the strong, that’s how nature works.”

“Our guys should have stood up to him. Kiev didn’t issue a single order. We voted against a paralysis of power. Our people have been humiliated and everything is in ruins.”

“We’re afraid for our children in school. They repeat what the grown-ups say at home. Children are losing friends because of it. And yet now we have a new life. We’ll survive.”

The Crimean Tartars are more concerned by the problems facing their people, and they want the new authorities to give them what they have never yet managed to achieve: greater recognition for their language, the registration of “self-seized” lands and a right to return for those currently living in Central Asia. There are 120,000 Tartars living in Uzbekistan alone, and 90% of them would like to return to the Crimea.

“The Crimean Tartars blame Russia for everything in any case. Things didn’t go too badly for them when the Crimea was part of Ukraine. On 17 April 2014, however, the Supreme Council of Ukraine adopted a law “On the restoration of the rights of persons deported on grounds of ethnicity”, mainly concerning the Crimean Tartars. Putin immediately announced that a decree would shortly be adopted on the issue of the Crimean Tartars. The Tartars defended Yushchenko to the hilt, but he did nothing for them, since the secret services were afraid that they would be in favour of the Crimea leaving Ukraine. Whether you approve of what has happened or not, the only way to solve the problems we currently face is to get into power,” said one of the Majlis leaders.

One last episode. We’re about to fly back to Moscow. I walk up to a souvenir kiosk in the airport where they’re selling Russian flags. I say to no one in particular:

“Only Russian flags?”

The shop assistant silently pulls out a Ukrainian flag from behind the counter and gives it to me.

“How much?”

“Nothing. It’s a present.”

The proposals put forward by myself, Evgeny Bobrovy and Olga Tseytlina to the Russian authorities place us in an incongruous position, since we could be seen on the one hand to be legitimising Russia’s presence in the Crimea by our requests.

On the other hand, people need help to survive in a situation which no one expected. No one has given any thought to the transitional period – what should be done about the banks which have shut their doors, whether the law enforcement agencies and the courts should continue using the old Ukrainian laws as long as they don’t contradict the Russian system. It’s hard not to think that all of these decisions have been taken on the spur of the moment, and that there was no clear plan beyond the goal that had been set.

On the basis of these considerations, I subscribe to the proposals put forward by our group.

I remain firm in my belief that Russia’s annexation of the Crimea was unlawful, since it violated all manner of international agreements, in particular the Memorandum of 5 December 1994 (see below).


Treaty between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Crimea on the acceptance of the Republic of Crimea into the Russian Federation and on the creation of new federal subjects within the Russian Federation (Moscow, 18 March 2014) 

Article 5

As of the date of acceptance of the Republic of Crimea into the Russian Federation and the creation of new federal subjects within the Russian Federation, Ukrainian citizens and stateless citizens permanently residing on that date in the Republic of Crimea or the Federal City of Sevastopol shall be recognised as citizens of the Russian Federation, with the exception of those persons who, no later than one month after this date, make known their desire to retain their current citizenship for themselves and/or for their underage children or to remain stateless citizens.

The Constitutional Law of the Russian Federation “On the Acceptance of the Republic of Crimea into the Russian Federation and the Creation of New Federal Subjects – the Republic of Crimea and the Federal City of Sevastopol.” 20 March 2014.

Article 4

The recognition of Ukrainian citizens and stateless citizens permanently residing in the Republic of Crimea or the Federal City of Sevastopol as citizens of the Russian Federation.

1. As of the date of acceptance of the Republic of Crimea into the Russian Federation and the creation of new federal subjects within the Russian Federation, Ukrainian citizens and stateless citizens permanently residing on that date in the Republic of Crimea or the Federal City of Sevastopol shall be recognised as citizens of the Russian Federation, with the exception of those persons who, no later than one month after this date, make known their desire to retain their current citizenship for themselves and/or for their underage children or to remain stateless citizens.

2. Documents confirming their status as citizens of the Russian Federation shall be issued within three months of the date of acceptance of the Republic of Crimea into the Russian Federation and the creation of new federal subjects within the Russian Federation.

3. Restrictions provided for by the legislation of the Russian Federation concerning the appointment to state and municipal positions or posts in the state and municipal civil service of citizens of the Russian Federation who hold citizenship of another country or who hold a residence permit or another document confirming their right to reside permanently as a citizen of the Russian Federation in another country shall take effect in the Republic of Crimea and the Federal City of Sevastopol one month after the acceptance into the Russian Federation of the Republic of Crimea and the creation of new federal subjects within the Russian Federation.

International Treaty 

Memorandum of 5 December 1994 

Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection with Ukraine’s Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 

Adopted by

The Government of the Russian Federation,

The Government of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,

The Government of the United States of America,

The Government of Ukraine.

Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America,

Welcoming the accession of Ukraine to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a non-nuclear-weapon State,

Taking into account the commitment of Ukraine to eliminate all nuclear weapons from its territory within a specified period of time,

Noting the changes in the world-wide security situation, including the end of the cold war, which have brought about conditions for deep reductions in nuclear forces,

Confirm the following:

1. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine;

2. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations;

3. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind;

4. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used;

5. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm, in the case of Ukraine, their commitment not to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, except in the case of an attack on themselves, their territories or dependent territories, their armed forces, or their allies, by such a State in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon State;

6. Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America will consult in the event a situation arises that raises a question concerning these commitments.

This Memorandum will become applicable upon signature. Signed in four copies having equal validity in the Ukrainian, English and Russian languages.

Budapest, 5 December 1994

Signed by Leonid Kuchma, Boris Yeltsin, John Major, Bill Clinton

About the author: Svetlana Gannushkina
Chair of the Civic Assistance Committee,
Member of the Board of Memorial 

First published in: Novaya gazeta 

Translated by Chloe Cranston, Joanne Reynolds and Suzanne Eade Roberts