Over 35 years ago, a respected Russian writer, Vasily Aksenov, portrayed the Crimea as a small, rich and independent state in his novel “The Island of Crimea.”
Despite its small size and lack of natural resources, Aksenov’s fictional version of Crimea was relatively peaceful and prosperous because it was open to trade with Europe and skilful enough in foreign policy and national security to stay independent of Russia. This model for “the Island”, as it was called in the novel, is worth examining given the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
From the late 1970’s into the 80’s, ideas from this novel influenced particular politicians in the Soviet oligarchy. They studied this novel, not because they wanted an independent Crimea, but because they needed a “safe haven” outside the former Soviet Union to store their stolen wealth, and perhaps retire with immunity to enjoy the spoils of their corruption.
Negative experiences with offshore banking in the Mediterranean Sea (namely Cyprus), the lack of knowledge of the legal systems in the U.S. or Europe, and their unfamiliarity with most of the rest of the world — made an independent Crimea sound like a good option for these oligarchs. Many of which have risen to prominence in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and have accumulated even more wealth from Russia’s corrupt oil and arms industry.
Given the crisis in Ukraine, the reason to examine the thought of an independent Crimea is as relevant today, for Russia, as it was during the time of Aksenov’s novel, or perhaps even more so. And here are four reasons why:
1. Russia could easily obtain bilateral agreements from an independent Crimea for the indefinite, prolonged presence of their Black Sea Fleet, while friendly Crimean authorities could remove restrictions on the Fleet’s actions, composition and updates;
2. An independent Crimean banking and legal system, would allow Russian oligarchs to keep some of their “assets” safe, while offering a sort of immunity from extradition orders of other countries, including Russia itself;
3. Opportunities to buy land, create companies, attain credit and insurance could open up for much of Russia’s business community;
4. Crimea’s mild climate could alleviate some of the health concerns, such as heart and lung disease, that is affecting the upper classes of Russian society that live in a suboptimal climate.
Whether it’s Russia’s military, their oligarchs, businessman or elderly elite, which are all part of Putin’s inner circle, the idea of an independent Crimea is a promising one.
Interestingly, the acting Premier of Crimea, Sergey Aksenov, has recently taken steps in this direction by creating an independent Army and Navy, Ministries of Justice and Interior, an independent tax, prison, customs and immigration system, as well as its own social security system. These acts and other indicators increasingly suggest that Crimea’s authorities may be making preparations for the emergence of an independent state.
Moreover, Sergey Aksenov just issued a decree two weeks ago to organize an all-Crimean referendum on March 16th to possibly break away from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. In speaking with journalists last week, Vladimir Putin was not fond of the idea, and rejected the notion to have Crimea reunite with Russia.
The Russian head of the Duma Committee for CIS Affairs, Leonid Slutskiy, stated that Crimeans may vote to secede from Ukraine via referendum, but went on to say “… we will make our response only after the referendum” scheduled to take place this Sunday. This leaves the option of an independent Crimea as not only a strategic solution, it is possibly the most practical given that Russia will most likely not favour a reunification with the Crimean Peninsula.
As for Ukraine, their advance towards freedom may rest on an independent Crimea, as they do not have the kinetic strength to face down a heavily armed Russian military, that is currently building up along the border. Refuting an independent Crimea would also send the wrong signal to the Eastern and Southeastern regions of the country, heavily populated by ethnic Russians, who could create more instability by growing their ongoing rallies in favour of secession from Ukraine.
While fiction is not fact, Aksenov’s novel ends with the “Island of Crimea” being destroyed because it reintegrates with Russia. In any crisis, simple solutions are never the order of the day. An independent Crimea may prove to be the silver lining between Russia, Ukraine and Crimea’s best interest.
Dr. Evgueni Novikov is a defector from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and currently a senior advisor to the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS). Dr. Novikov recently published “The Russian Invasion of the Crimea” available for purchase online here.