Crimean issue in the presidential election 2019

Position on Crimea determines the internal legitimacy of political forces in Ukraine. However, the return of the peninsula directly concerns a rather narrow stratum of voters in Ukraine. As a result, the de-occupation of Crimea is out of the priority issues of the presidential campaign 2019 being left on the periphery of the presidential election programs of most candidates. Nevertheless, there are three camps of candidates offering various ways to return the peninsula and forms of interaction with the occupied territories: mainstream politicians, pro-Russian candidates and nationalists.

 The annexation of Crimea has changed the electoral balance in Ukraine. First, due to the occupation of Crimea, the electorate of the pro-Russian forces has significantly declined on a nationwide scale. For comparison, in the second round of the presidential elections in 2010, 1 million voters from the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (78%) and the city of Sevastopol (84%) voted for Viktor Yanukovych. Second, the Crimean issue has become one of the hallmarks of the political legitimacy of the presidential candidates. Thus, 69% of the population of Ukraine believe that Crimea should be a part of Ukraine. Third, the annexation of Crimea along with the conflict in Donbas has led to the marginalization of socio-political discourse around the status of the Russian language, federalization, integration into the Eurasian Economic Union, etc.

 De-occupation of Crimea is in direct competence of the President of Ukraine. In accordance with the Constitution of Ukraine, the President of Ukraine is the guarantor of state sovereignty, territorial integrity of Ukraine, being responsible for national security, defense and foreign policy.

Despite the national consensus on Crimea, de-occupation of the peninsula is out of the priorities of this year’s presidential campaign. Sociological surveys show that the Ukrainians are mostly concerned by the war in Donbas, the standard of living, corruption and the economic situation in the country. At the same time, the issue of Crimea directly concerns a very narrow layer of voters including Crimean Tatars, immigrants from Crimea, military officers, Ukrainian citizens who have incomes higher than the average ones.

As a result, the Crimean issue is on the periphery of the presidential election programs of the candidates.

The main contenders

Petro Poroshenko: “The attack of Russia began with the attempt of annexation of Crimea. It should end with its return, including the reimbursement of damages and the provision of effective guarantees of non-repetition of aggression. We are fighting for it in international courts, and I am convinced that we will win as we won in Stockholm”. In addition, Poroshenko advocates changes to the Constitution of Ukraine regarding Crimean Tatar autonomy, aimed at consolidating the rights of the Crimean Tatars as indigenous people of the peninsula.

Yulia Tymoshenko: “We propose to use the political-diplomatic format “Budapest Plus”. It is a new format for Ukraine’s negotiations with world leaders that will ensure the return to peace, as well as the liberation of the occupied Donbas and the annexed Crimea. It is about the restoration and implementation of the true security guarantees received by Ukraine in 1994 after the signing of the Budapest Memorandum”. Tymoshenko also supports the strengthening of sanctions against Russia and the strengthening of Ukraine’s defense capabilities.

Liberal candidates

Volodymyr Zelenskyi has not yet made his electoral program public (as of January 2019), although he emphasized on the need to return Crimea and Donbas peacefully.

Anatoliy Grytsenko: “Ukraine will not give up rights to Crimea in exchange for any economic benefits – there are our citizens in Crimea, it is our land, and Crimea will be Ukrainian!”. In addition, Grytsenko proposes to resolve the issues of Donbas and Crimea through the four-party negotiations (Ukraine, Russia, the US, the EU).

Andriy Sadovyi: “If we have a standard of living and pensions twice as high as they are in Russia, we will be able to return a part of the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. If we have them four times higher, we will return Crimea”. Sadovyi also supports the autonomy of Crimea.

Pro-Russian candidates

Yuriy Boyko: “First of all, we must resolve the issue of Donbas. There is no prescription for Crimea now, but things the today’s authorities do cut Crimea further away is a movement that does not bring Crimea closer, but, on the contrary, cuts it off completely. All these blockades, obstacles – water, electric and everything else”.

Oleksandr Vilkul: “The return of Crimea is a path that will not be proceeded quickly”. Vilkul promised to restore the supply of water to Crimea and economic ties with the peninsula. The politician also believes that Ukraine will be able to restore real sovereignty if it conducts foreign policy based on neutrality, compromise, pragmatism.

Yevgeniy Murayev: “In order to return the territory, … it is necessary to restore economic relations, social payments, normalize relations in stages”. Murayev proposes to restore water supply to Crimea, as well as remove the trade and tourist blockade of the peninsula.

Nationalist candidates

Oleg Lyashko: “The return of these territories is only possible due to our strength. … I mean not only military force. Moreover, I do not mean a direct military attack”. Lyashko believes that Ukraine should rely on economic recovery, a capable army, a special services and international partners.

Ruslan Koshulynskyi: “Ukraine should become powerful like Israel or Switzerland in military terms. … We will return Crimea only when we destroy and overcome our enemy – Russia”. The politician proposes to build a navigable canal around Crimea, supports a complete blockade of Crimea and advocates the elimination of the Crimean autonomy after de-occupation.

Andriy Biletskyi supports the return of Crimea by military means. “We need to weaken Russia from the inside, and it is possible because there are many internal, national, social, religious problems”.

Thus, the Crimean issue divided the presidential candidates into three groups. The first group (mainstream politicians) advocates increasing sanctions on Russia, intensification of international negotiations, building a strong army and improving living standards in government-controlled areas. The second group (pro-Russian candidates) proposes to lift the blockade of Crimea and resume ties with the occupied peninsula, although it mostly emphasizes on restoring peace in Donbas. The third group (nationalists) advocate a rigid blockade of Crimea and do not reject the military scenario of returning the peninsula under more favorable circumstances.