Borys Babin has been in office since August 17 last year. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko appointed a new representative in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea after activists had expressed dissatisfaction with the previous one – Natalia Popovych. It will be recalled that Crimean Tatar activists protested against Popovych in July last year near the Representation of the President of Ukraine in Crimea. Members of the Asker civic formation, former Aidar fighters, and other people in military uniform were saying that Popovych did not receive people in her office or care about migrants from Crimea, and they knew very little about the work of this governmental body. The conflict lasted for about a month.
Izet Gdanov, a participant in the July protest and the public blockade of Crimea in 2015, became the first deputy of the newly-appointed representative. He is called a creature of Lenur Isliamov, a Crimean Tatar political figure, the mastermind of the public blockade of Crimea in 2015, and an initiator of protests against Natalia Popovych.
Borys BABIN is an international and maritime law expert, an academic. After his appointment, the Representation became a more frequent subject of discussions. Babin often speaks publicly about Crimean problems, such as illegal transportations, the performance of customs services at check points, the establishment of “service provision centers” in the borderline areas of Kherson oblast, etc. The Day met Babin to talk about the Representation’s role in tackling legal, security, economic, social, and other problems Ukraine is facing as a result of Russia’s aggression.
Mr. Babin, is there a strategy of returning Crimea? Who works it out?
“The occupation of Crimea and the Donbas is an element of the interstate conflict. The strategy of deoccupation can only be a component in solving the overall problem – ending the war with Ukraine’s victory, not defeat.”
In other words, first a victory in the Donbas war and only then the strategy of deoccupation?
“The Donbas and Crimea are not separate conflicts. They shoot over there, but not here. But still it is one conflict. We must have a single – diplomatic, security, and military – front of resistance. I don’t know what we will liberate earlier – Crimea or the Donbas. The world is changing fast. Yet we must map out a general strategy of resisting the aggressor. I am sure that these documents exist, but they cannot be publicized.”
What is the role of the Representation in this process?
“We know that Crimea will be deoccupied. But we cannot say in detail and publicly how this will be done. Yet we can say what is to be done here and now to resist the Russian aggression that is unfolding in the public plane. Let’s call it Plan of Urgent Actions. We have almost finished drawing up this document.”
What is there in it?
“It is about international relations, the policy of law, public administration, transport, trade, finances, the environment, education, etc. We have a lot of bodies that deal with Crimea: the police, the Security Service, the Ministry for Temporary Occupied Territories, the Ministry of Defense, and other ministries. The question is whether we should have this plan approved at the National Security and Defense Council level or a separate law. But it is difficult, for some things must be done now. We think we will be fulfilling this plan within the limits of the Representation’s authority. It will result in projects, proposals, and actions. But the plan should at first be scrutinized by a high-level task force composed of prominent Ukrainian academics, deputy ministers, and other officials. It will take just a few weeks. Then we will make this plan public and work on it in the next two years. Unfortunately, I can’t say there will be deoccupation in 2018 or, frankly speaking, even in 2019.”
Does this plan set out any indicators of effectiveness?
“Of course, in each of the steps, even if it is a matter beyond our competence. Then we will be reporting on progress in the fulfillment of this plan so that society can see why I am paid a salary off your taxes.
“The next thing we are going to work on in 2018 is the strategy of Crimea’s reintegration. We must work out a plan of actions from the ‘zero hour,’ when we will begin to enter Crimea, until the moment we say: Crimea is fully integrated into the legal, economic, cultural, and security fields of Ukraine. Will the invader be withdrawing from Crimea smoothly and honestly? No. Will we run any risks after the deoccupation? Yes. That’s why we must think it over right now.”
HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSE
In what way are you monitoring human rights abuse in Crimea? What is the current situation?
“Seventy percent of the information about human rights abuse situation in Crimea is openly accessible. Russia is simulating its own legal system in Crimea and, therefore, cannot brazenly hide its activities, as it does in the Donbas. Our analytical section monitors the so-called administrative bodies, courts, and the mass media. About 1,500 people have turned to us in four months. It is a huge array of information about human rights abuse. We also cooperate with human rights advocates and the government bodies that furnish information. As for the situation as a whole, there are two dimensions. Firstly, Russia is brazenly destroying the people’s political freedoms. This includes Russification, ban of the Crimean Tatar people’s bodies of self-organization, and persecution of activists, patriots of Ukraine, under the guise of combating extremism. Secondly, it is a mass-scale violation of socioeconomic rights, such as to housing, work, education, pension, etc. This applies to the whole population of Crimea. We include the results of our monitoring in reports to the Presidential Administration and the UN and OSCE monitoring missions.”
As for the disappeared activists in Crimea, there are nongovernmental organizations that inquire into these cases. Do you cooperate with them?
“It is a very delicate matter. Unfortunately, there are entities that make political or material capital out of this subject. There were instances when we were going to help people, but once the so-called human rights champions came to know about this, things went awry. We are prepared to cooperate with any entity, but our condition is that cooperation should really help the people who are detained or missing in Crimea, or their relatives. We are not hyping ourselves up. As for the disappeared persons, I advise their relatives to turn to the Representation so that we closely look into every case.”
What are you doing concretely for these people?
“I cannot give names. For example, there is a family in Crimea. The father was kidnapped or is behind bars. The mother is left with children who need to receive Ukrainian documents, go to the mainland, and come back. It is very difficult to do if there is only one of the parents. And we resolve this kind of problems. Another example: there is a well-known person who died in Crimea. There are his relatives in mainland Ukraine. A lot activist visited them. I asked them later if all these hype-up entities helped them, say, to file a lawsuit to an international court. The answer was ‘No.’”
Let’s take Ukraine’s lawsuits against Russia over violations of international law. How many of them are there, who deals with them, and at what stage of examination are they now?
“Various entities are responsible for this. The first is the Ministry of Justice which deals with suits to the European Court of Human Rights. There are several suits, of which two touch upon Crimea. I can’t forecast how long it will all take, but, surely, at least a few years. This ruling in this case will include a lot of documented human rights violations in Crimea on the part of Russia. The Foreign Ministry of Ukraine is also monitoring many cases, including some at the International Court of Justice on the basis of two conventions – for the suppression of the financing of terrorism and on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. The Crimean question is raised in the second part. It is in this part that the court ruled in 2017 to lift the ban on the Crimean Tatar people’s bodies of self-organization. This case has a lot of risks and is expected to last several years. Russia will be doing its utmost to have this case dropped. An arbitration court also begins to examine Russia’s violations of the Convention on the Law of the Sea – about the rights of Ukraine to the continental shelf and the economic zone around Crimea, restrictions on the freedom of shipping, and pollution of the Black Sea. The communication is going on, but it is confidential. One more case is being dealt with by the International Criminal Court – it directly concerns the Russian aggression. The Prosecutor General’s Office is responsible for this. From the juridical angle, this situation is at the initial stage in comparison with other lawsuits.
“Besides, there are cases initiated by Ukrainian natural persons and legal entities – for example, the investment dispute of the national joint-stock company Naftohaz Ukrainy about the impossibility of using their property. These processes go fast. But here Russia evades participation. As for suits of natural persons to then ECtHR, this court says that only a few hundred people have filed complaints against the aggressor. More people have sued Russia and Ukraine at the same time. And still more people are suing Ukraine only. It is, above all, residents of the Donbas.”
A number of resolutions of international organizations (UN, Council of Europe, NATO) condemn Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Russia in fact ignores these statements. To what extent effective are these resolutions?
“From the viewpoint of international law, these documents are very important. But still more important will be the binding rulings of courts. Firstly, the acts of international organizations are taken into account in the abovementioned judicial decisions. Secondly, they constitute the grounds for imposing sanctions against the aggressor.”
The Russian president said recently that they are prepared to return the Ukrainian warships they had seized in Crimea. What do you think of this?
“Word has it that the Russians are preparing a ‘heavenly nook’ for their powers that be in Balaclava. So it is necessary to move Russian ships from this bay to Sevastopol. But there are the captured ships of the Ukrainian Navy there. On the one hand, they want to solve their questions of self-interest about Balaclava, but, on the other hand, if we agree, they will say: look, we maintain good relations with Ukrainians, we are tackling the problem of Crimea, and they are taking back their junk. They expect us to swallow the bait, for it costs a pretty penny to recycle some equipment on the mainland.
“Undoubtedly, Ukraine must increase its military presence in the Black Sea. However, what really matters here is people, not hardware. Unfortunately, 2014 showed the true level of the will to resist on the part of some Ukrainian servicemen, particularly the naval personnel. We are sure not to return Crimea with the help of those who surrendered Crimea and bargained over a trouble-free removal of property from the officers’ apartments.”
Are you accusing these people of surrendering Crimea?
“I am not putting the blame on them, but I want to see an investigation and a trial. I am only stating a well-known fact. How many Ukrainian servicemen left Crimea, how many remained behind, how many of those who left offered resistance? The figures are very different.”
What is Crimea today in military terms?
“The peninsula is becoming a beachhead of Russia’s further aggression. Obviously, the presence of Russia in Syria and its plans about the Mediterranean region would be impossible without presence in Crimea. Therefore, let me say it gain, only a victory of civilized nations in the undeclared war with Russia can resolve the Crimean question. Militarily, Russia obviously poses a threat to Ukraine from Crimea. There can be nuclear weapons on the peninsula because the necessary capacities are available.”
THE CRIMEAN TATAR QUESTION
What is your attitude to the Crimean Tatar autonomy?
“This topic is politicized very much. In 1991, the Supreme Council of what was still Soviet Ukraine restored the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. I stress: restored. In other words, this envisioned autonomy for Crimea’s indigenous peoples. From 1992 until 2014 Ukraine had to make endless concessions to Russia about Crimea and autonomy.
“The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine recognizes the UN declaration on indigenous peoples. Today, we are to let the Crimean Tatar people exercise their right to self-determination within the limits of Ukraine. How? There are several ways. The first is to introduce amendments to the Constitution. A task force is working on changes to Article 10 of the Constitution (Autonomous Republic of Crimea). The second is connected with disapproving he law on indigenous peoples. But the registered drafts of this law suggest controversial conclusions. My position is that there should be autonomy.”
There is an idea of holding the Comprehensive Testing of Applicants in Kherson oblast. What is your attitude to this?
“Territorially, the autonomy already exists – it is the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. In my view, we in mainland Ukraine can only speak of the state’s overall duty to preserve the cultural, economic, and social rights of indigenous peoples.”
Would it be a good idea to assign quotas in administrative bodies for Mejlis members?
“Quotas in the executive bodies of government on the basis of ethnicity contravene the law of Ukraine. It is absurd. We have representative bodies, where this can be discussed in theory – for example, elections to the Ukrainian parliament and local councils coupled with the formation of ethnic constituencies. Quotas for political offices? It’s possible. But the Mejlis is a special case. Anyway, this should be applied to the bodies that will function in Crimea after deoccupation.”
What is the Representation doing to protect the cultural and educational rights of Crimean Tatars?
“We are not dispensers of budgetary funds. Unfortunately, we don’t have a law on indigenous people. For this reason, funding is only possible through the program of protecting the deported. These funds are used, for example, to finance the ATR TV channel. In general, it is the domain of the Ministry of Social Policies. On our part, we stay in touch with all executive and local government bodies. We care about a Crimean Tatar language school in Novooleksiivka, Henichesk raion. We lobbied technical assistance and demanded that the local authorities resolve the heating problem. We are in contact with all the local Mejlises and ready to support projects, particularly those of international organizations.”
Why and how does the Crimean Titan plant work? Where does it take the raw material (ilmenite) and electric power?
“The plant really works. Some reports say that raw materials are delivered from Ukraine and other countries. It is a serious problem, and we are raising it before the law-enforcement bodies. As for electric power supply, this fact has not been proven for a simple reason – the power grids operator says this does not occur. It is impossible to prove the opposite unless you control the grids. And the regional power supply company sues those who say that electricity is being furnished. I am not so rich and will not make this kind of statements. But I want law-enforcers to do something. I can assure you that his activity will be put an end to. Titan’s products are used in the aggressor’s military industry. Weapons are being made under our nose perhaps to destroy us. Besides, this poses an environmental problem – the pollution of Sivash and air. Incidentally, let us say the truth: this also existed before the war.”
You have repeatedly said in the media about illegal transportations in Crimea. What’s the crux of the matter?
“The main problem is that checkpoints to Crimea have no legal transport communication today. Motor transport is divided there into three groups. The first is former interregional buses that used to run before the war. They ride up to the checkpoint, passengers cross the administrative border, while the ‘twin’ of this bus is waiting on the other side. And our gallant Transport Safety Service is trying to say that this is lawful. Tickets to Kerch are not sold in mainland Ukraine, and there is no such stop as checkpoint. The second group is totally illegal taxi minibuses which pick up people at the checkpoint and carry them further on. The friends Franklin, Grant, and Jackson [portraits of US presidents on dollar bills. – Ed.] help solve all problems with the Transport Safety Service, the local authorities, and the police. The third group is taxi drivers. It is the only category that can carry people through the checkpoint without changing. Taxi drivers can cross the line with the Russian side’s permission. This strong corrupt chain also comprises our officials who oversee transport. All this occurs under the surveillance of Russian special services. Everybody smiles because everybody cashes in. We will not put up with this. Incidentally, we are raising the question of deploying National Guard units in Henichesk raion. We must admit that the state has lost control of this district to some extent. It is a big headache for the local executive authorities.”
What is the way out of the situation?
“We want to extend the railway communication as far as ‘Vadym’ station so that passengers can almost reach the checkpoint. We are trying to see to it that bus routes should be at last opened on a competitive basis. At the moment, it is enough to make a stop near the checkpoint, put up a ticket-selling booth – and it will be a legal route station. It is the Kherson Oblast Administration that should invite bids because it is interregional communication. I don’t know why this hasn’t been done in all these years. Raion administrations are not raising this question either. We wrote letters to the oblast administration, convened conferences, and informed the Transport Safety Service about illegal carriers. They are essentially turning a deaf ear to us. You know, it is easy to ‘clip coupons’ while it is illegal. But when it becomes legal, everybody will be paying taxes and nobody will be cheating.”