On the eve of the Day of Resistance to the Occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol – an exclusive interview with a Crimean activist

Опубліковано 22 February 2023 року, о 14:02

Andriy Shchekun: “Today, Crimeans are more and more convinced that the issue of the peninsula is not as “untouchable” as it might have seemed before”

Andriy Shchekun is a Crimean resident, journalist, public figure, publisher, and editor-in-chief of the Crimean Svitlytsia newspaper. He lived in Crimea for 23 years but was forcibly deported from there. Since the first prisoner exchange, he has been living in mainland Ukraine. We are speaking with him about the activities of the Crimean resistance, effective information policy, fighting with Russian disinformation, preserving cultural and historical heritage, and the problems that will have to be solved after the de-occupation of the peninsula. The interview is dedicated to the Day of Resistance to the Occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol, which is celebrated on February 26.

  • In 2014, you were an active participant in the protests in Crimea, in particular, a co-coordinator of the civil movement “Euromaidan-Crimea”. What kind of struggle did you go through then?

The years 2013-2014 were bright pages in the Ukrainian resistance to pro-Russian organizations in Crimea, and later the active struggle against Russian aggression. There the actions of the Euromaidan-Crimea movement, trips of Crimeans to Kyiv to support the Maidan, etc. were organized. Further difficult challenges were evacuating my family, hiding, organizing public events in support of Ukraine, abducting me at the Simferopol railway station, eleven days of captivity together with my fellow prisoner Anatoliy Kovalskyi, where I went through tortures. Our exchange was technically a forced deportation outside of Crimea. It was difficult. But we always had fellow Crimeans, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, by our side, who did not break down. Our unity was crucial in the struggle for Ukrainian Crimea.

In November 2013, we realized that the struggle for the European direction of our country’s development would not bypass Crimea. We had to make clear decisions, as we did in all regions of Ukraine. We immediately organized the Crimean movement in support of Ukraine’s membership in the EU.

On November 24, 2013, during the first action “I choose the EU” in Simferopol, we announced the creation of the civic movement “Euromaidan-Crimea”. Initially, hundreds of people responded to our call, but later it was thousands.

On that day, the Party of Regions brought more than 5,000 Crimeans against us. Among them were representatives of pro-Russian organizations, communists, and employees of public institutions. The vast majority were brought from all regions of Crimea in an organized manner. Already on that day, they raised the anti-state slogan “Crimea to Russia”, demanding that Ukraine join the Customs Union.

On February 27, 2014, when Russian troops and special services seized the state buildings of the Council of Ministers and the Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, my team had a choice: to flee, negotiate with the enemy or resist, putting our lives at risk. We chose to fight. The first Statement of the Occupation Resistance Movement to the Budapest Memorandum countries was issued.

On March 2, 2014, we started daily pro-Ukrainian protests near the bust of Taras Shevchenko in Simferopol. The protests grew and expanded their geography throughout the peninsula. By that time, we, as a resistance movement, had fulfilled our main task. It was to counteract the myth that everyone in Crimea was waiting for Russia. The most massive demonstration took place on March 9th, 2014. It was attended by about three thousand Crimeans. It was at this time that the abductions of our activists began.

  • Russian propaganda actively imposes the idea that almost all residents of the peninsula dream of living in Russia. What do you think is the real situation? What number (proportion) of Crimean residents sincerely want to live in Ukraine? Who are these people mostly?

In the period before the occupation, supporters of the Russian Federation accounted for only 4% of the total number of Crimeans. This is the official data of the local elections to the Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in 2010. There was also the electorate of the Communists – 7% and the Soyuz party – 5%. At that time, they had no influence on politics in Crimea. The main influence was carried by the Party of Regions, which had a mono-majority in the Crimean parliament – 49%.

The pro-Ukrainian national democratic forces were dispersed, but in 2010 their electoral niche accounted for 15% of voters. In 2012, this figure rose to 25%. This means, the electorate of pro-Ukrainian forces in Crimea was growing every year. And this made it impossible to strengthen the supporters of pro-Russian forces. Therefore, Russia hastened to carry out the aggression while its small political forces remained influential in Crimea.

But I would pay attention to other figures. Namely, the dynamics of the decline in the number of Ukrainians. In 2014, their share was 15% of the total population. In 2021, it dropped to 7%. Both censuses were conducted by the occupation authorities. As you can see, during the occupation, Ukrainians became the most discriminated ethnic group. In fact, this is a statement of the ethnocide of Ukrainians in Crimea.

Russia must be held accountable for all these crimes. And we must not allow those who implemented this occupation policy on the Crimean Peninsula to escape justice.

Of course, we should be cautious about trusting these censuses, as they are part of active propaganda. But it is important to note that even under occupation, both Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars preserve their national identity. Even though they are in circumstances where they are forced to hide their views and opinions in order to save their families.

When assessing people’s sympathies, it should also be taken into account that most Crimeans have the opportunity to compare life in Crimea before and after the occupation. Many of them expected a different attitude from Russia. Therefore, some of them are in the process of reassessing events. Especially given the recent successes of the Ukrainian Armed Forces on the battlefield.

There is no doubt that the number of supporters of Crimea’s return to Ukraine is increasing. Crimeans are more and more convinced that the issue of the peninsula is not as “untouchable” as it might have seemed before. That is why Russian propaganda has recently been trying even harder to impose the ideology of the “Russian world” because it is not as trusted as it used to be. In order to keep Crimeans in the information orbit of the Russian Federation, propagandists are coming up with new methods of distraction and disinformation.

  • What does Ukraine need to do now, while Crimea is still a TOT, to send a signal to its residents that victory and liberation of the peninsula are inevitable?

Ukraine should clearly outline an action plan for the next 5 years in each sector. This will be the best signal of the inevitability of victory and the liberation of Crimea. We need to announce today what the President, the Verkhovna Rada, the Cabinet of Ministers, and military administrations will do, what tasks will be performed by civil society and the international community. This should be understood and shared with the Crimeans.

Ukraine must already have a clear action program, demonstrate new opportunities for Crimeans after their liberation from the occupiers. The main values should be the rights of citizens and freedom of speech. It is important to do this now.

  • Ukrainians are confident that this year will be the year of our Victory, and Victory means, of course, the liberation of Crimea. What are the priority steps we should take after the liberation to integrate Crimeans into the Ukrainian cultural space as soon as possible?

First of all, we must realize that it is impossible to integrate Crimeans into the Ukrainian cultural space without forming a Ukrainian identity. Priority steps should be aimed at consolidating and strengthening the Ukrainian community in Crimea as the basis of resistance to Russian aggression, stability and guarantees of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. For more than thirty years of independence, the role of the Ukrainian community in Crimea has remained underestimated.

Crimea is the only region where Ukrainians represent a national minority. During the period of occupation, they suffer the greatest ethnic discrimination. The occupiers have been deliberately destroying Ukrainian national identity for the past nine years. Therefore, the Ukrainian community needs state support. After all, it is the key to the integration of Crimeans into the Ukrainian cultural space, the bearer of Ukrainian identity and, at the same time, the national security of Ukraine!