As an undergraduate, I attended Georgetown University, from 1990 to 1994. I spent one semester abroad, in the fall of 1993, at the St Petersburg (Russia) Gorny Institut.
This past weekend I was looking through some of my stuff that still remained in my parents’ house and took two overflowing boxes of books, papers, and other things home with me. One of those things was a copy of the campus newspaper, The Hoya, dated March 4, 1994.
As soon as I saw it, I knew why I had kept that paper. I had an op-ed piece in there about what was at the time the emerging situation between Russia and Ukraine in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. I think that this 21+ year old article provides more than a little bit of insight into events in that region over the past couple of years. Enjoy!
Russian Nationalism in Crimea Threatens Ukraine
The small, semiautonomous republic of Crimea has become the focal point of a debate between Russia and Ukraine. The republic held elections on Jan. 30, in which Russian nationalist Yuri Meshkov won about 75% of the vote. While a three-fourths majority may seem high to Americans, it comes as no surprise to those familiar with Crimean politics and economics.
The United States recently convinced the Ukrainian government to begin dismantling the nuclear arsenal it inherited after the break-up of the Soviet Union and promised financial and military protection for Ukraine. Despite U.S. promises of protection, Ukraine is in a precarious situation: it faces the potential threat of a Russian invasion, which, under the leadership of recently elected ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, seems quite possible.
Crimeans feel few cultural ties to Ukraine, and therefore, with reason, would prefer to be part of Russia. Although most Crimeans agree unification with Russia would improve their situation, Ukrainian opposition to such a union is fierce.
I visited Crimea last September as part of a study-abroad program in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was initially afraid to speak to the citizens: I speak Russian, not Ukrainian, and resentment among the Ukrainians towards their Russian neighbors runs high. I soon discovered almost 80 percent of Crimea’s residents are ethnic Russians, and so my fear of speaking in that language dissolved quickly. Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 as a goodwill gesture following Stalin’s purges of the 1930s and 1940s. Despite 50 years under Ukrainian rule, most Crimeans still feel strong ties to Russia.
Ethnic ties, however, are not the only reason many Crimeans support reunification. Ukraine’s economy is, simply put, a mess. When I arrived in Crimea on September 27 of last year, the exchange rate was 14000 karbovanets (commonly called the coupon) to the dollar. When I left a week later, the rate was 16000 to the dollar. It doesn’t take an economics major to realize the situation is disastrous.
When the Ukrainian government first minted coupons in 1991, one coupon equaled one ruble. The week I was in Crimea, the Russian ruble was more-or-less stable at 1140 to the dollar. A loaf of bread cost about 1000 coupons. Although bread is less than a dime, the average pay for Crimeans was 50,000 coupons a month. A cab driver told me that he gave some of his pay to his parents, who are pensioners, because they only receive 30,000 coupons a month. On Feb. 23, 1994, the Washington Post quoted the exchange rate at 36000 coupons to the dollar. Anyone with dollars feels like a millionaire in Crimea.
I asked the Crimeans I met what they thought of their peninsula’s future. Most of them expressed a desire to rejoin Russia, to increase both political and economic stability, as well as to regain cultural unity.
Russia, Ukraine, and the United States are now in an interesting diplomatic position. With nationalism on the rise throughout Russia — as evidenced by the overwhelming victory of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, led by Zhirinovsky, who has talked of reclaiming lost territories including Poland, Ukraine, and Alaska — Ukrainians should be concerned about their own sovereignty.
Ukraine has only been independent from Russia for part of this century and if one looks at a map of this area and imagines Crimea as a part of Russia, the image bears a striking resemblance to the map of Germany and Czechoslovakia before Germany’s 1938 invasion. Russian territory would completely surround Ukrainian territory. Without nuclear weapons, Ukraine would be powerless to protect itself against a Russian invasion.
At this stage in the development of the former Soviet Union, the wisest move is to allow Russia and Ukraine to chart their own respective courses on the sea of change. It appears to me that Vladimir Zhirinovsky, with his overtly nationalistic talk, is bluffing. Part of the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation agreement would be that Ukraine would be protected in the event of a hostile invasion. If nobody calls Zhirinovsky’s bluff, should be prepared to react with whatever means are necessary. To avoid creating conflict where there is none, all Western actions in the area should be reactions.