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Putin's Crimea Address Rewrites History


Russian President Vladimir Putin's March 18 address to both houses of parliament seemed designed to justify what the Kremlin considers its historic claim on Crimea. Trouble is, a lot of the history seemed spotty.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the Russian president's speech "didn't jibe with reality." Here are some highlights of Putin's rewritten history in his Crimea speech.

1. Annexing Crimea is the right thing to do.

Putin: "In people's hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia."

Crimea, which has been claimed by a number of empires during the past millennium, has never really been an inseparable part of anything. Russia wrested it back from the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century, and the peninsula spent only 37 years as a part of the Soviet Union's Russian Republic before being transferred to Ukraine. Even a week before the March 16 referendum, just over 40 percent of Crimean residents, despite the majority being Russian, were calling for reunification in Russia -- as opposed to the 97 percent who officially approved it on the ballot. The peninsula's native population, the minority Crimean Tatars, boycotted the vote wholesale, as did many ethnic Ukrainians. Authorities have already begun asking Crimean Tatars to vacate their property; one Tatar man, who opposed the Russian takeover, has turned up dead, his body bearing marks of torture.

2. Sure there were dark times, but hey, it was dark for everybody.

Putin: "True, there was a time when Crimean Tatars were treated unfairly, just as a number of other peoples in the U.S.S.R. There is only one thing I can say here: millions of people of various ethnicities suffered during those repressions, and primarily Russians."

This is not strictly untrue, it's just very ugly logic. In 1944, the Kremlin ordered the overnight deportation of Crimea's native Tatar settlers, falsely accusing them of Nazi collaboration and ushering in ethnic Russians to resettle the land. Many Tatars died of starvation or illness along the way; when they began to return to Crimea two generations later, they did so as an unwelcome minority.

Still, that "unfair" deportation affected just over 200,000 Tatars. A drop in the bucket compared to the estimated 20 million people who died under Josef Stalin: kulaks, Poles, Balts, Volga Germans, Chechens, Ingush, Kalmyks, Balkars, Meskhetian Turks, Koreans -- and yes, many Russians, who by virtue of population size do outnumber the Tatars in victimhood.

3. Russia takes care of its ethnic minorities.

Putin: "Crimea is a unique blend of different peoples' cultures and traditions. This makes it similar to Russia as a whole, where not a single ethnic group has been lost over the centuries."

Aside and apart from Soviet-era ethnic deportations (including the Crimean Tatars in 1944), Moscow's Russian-only linguistic policy has had a devastating effect on the country's most vulnerable ethnic minorities.

According to UNESCO, there are currently 131 endangered languages in the Russian Federation. A language becomes endangered when it falls out of use because it has few surviving native speakers. Among the ethnic groups listed in the "critically endangered" category are the Aleuts, Selkups, Chulyms, and Negidals.

4. Russia was the perfect neighbor during the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Putin: "We accommodated Ukraine not only regarding Crimea, but also on such a complicated matter as the maritime boundary in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. What we proceeded from back then was that good relations with Ukraine matter most for us and they should not fall hostage to deadlock territorial disputes."

In fact, negotiations on an Azov-Kerch maritime border dragged well into the 21st century, with Ukraine pressing for a clear delineation and Russia advocating a looser, "shared-use" arrangement. Talks on the issue were so protracted that journalists kept a tally, registering the 25th round of negotiations in mid-2006.

A confrontation had already broken out between the two countries in 2003, when Russia attempted to construct a dam on the Kerch Strait island of Tuzla, a move Ukraine said encroached on its territory. In 2007, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said he was ready to resolve the issue if Moscow recognized the Soviet-era administrative borderline as the new official border. Russia's Foreign Ministry rejected the deal, denying that any administrative borders had ever been established in Soviet times.

5. The Kremlin supported German reunification in 1990.

Putin: "Let me remind you that in the course of political consultations on the unification of East and West Germany, at the expert, though very high level, some nations that were then and are now Germany's allies did not support the idea of unification. Our nation, however, unequivocally supported the sincere, unstoppable desire of the Germans for national unity."

Few countries in Europe were enthusiastic about the notion of creating a larger, stronger German state -- including the Soviet Union. But Moscow, one of the four World War II victors retaining power over Berlin, saw a silver lining -- the chance to pull a reunified Germany out of NATO, remove its nuclear arsenal and create a neutral buffer between the Soviet Union and the West. (The United States employed the opposite logic, and made its support of reunification contingent on a unified Germany staying in NATO.)

By 1990, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had softened his stance on NATO, saying that "the Germans must decide for themselves what path they choose to follow." However, it's likely this had less to do with the Germans' "unstoppable desire" for unity -- and more with West Germany's provision of an estimated $30 billion-$50 billion to fund the withdrawal of Soviet troops and stabilize Kremlin finances.

6. The election of Viktor Yushchenko following Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution was illegal.

Putin: "In 2004, to push the necessary candidate through at the presidential elections, they thought up some sort of third round that was not stipulated by law. It was absurd and a mockery of the constitution."

In the first round of Ukraine's presidential election on October 31, 2004, no candidate carried more than 50 percent of the vote, a result that by law forced a runoff between the two leading candidates, Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych. The second round, held on November 21, appeared to hand Yanukovych the win with 49.92 percent, but was immediately decried as fraudulent, thus sparking the Orange Revolution protests.

On December 1, the Ukrainian parliament passed a no-confidence vote in the cabinet of ministers, but had no means to force the government to resign without the cooperation of Yanukovych, then prime minister. Two days later, Ukraine's Supreme Court ruled that the scale of the electoral fraud made it impossible to establish the true election results. It invalidated the November 21 return and ordered a new runoff for December 26 -- not "some sort of third round," but a repeat of the invalidated second round. That vote was judged free and fair; Yushchenko was declared the winner with 52 percent of the vote.

7. Ukraine is joining NATO.

Putin (on March 18): "We have already heard declarations from Kyiv about Ukraine soon joining NATO."

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (also on March 18): "Accession to NATO is not on the agenda."

-- Daisy Sindelar

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