Gareth Davies

Crimea is our common historical legacy and a very important factor in regional stability. And this strategic territory should be part of a strong and stable sovereignty, which today can only be Russian.  –- Vladimir Putin


When we think about ethnic cleansing, the images that come to mind are often of massacre, forced migration, and the creation of refugees. The term ethnic cleansing suggests direct forms of violence and the physical movement of populations across borders, into dead zones, grey spaces, or areas outside the protection of the state. But what about bureaucracy? Can bureaucracy be used as a method of ethnic cleansing? We have seen it time and time again in the context of Israel/Palestine, where a number of bureaucratic mechanisms such as the legal system, and the use of checkpoints, are implemented to exert power over populations. Sometimes these mechanisms are used for the express purpose of pushing people off land, and in other cases they are used to make life so difficult for a people that they are coerced into “cleansing themselves” by migrating elsewhere. 

During South African apartheid black citizens were required to carry a dompass at all times—a form of internal identity card or passport which sought to further segregate and manage the population. In occupied Palestine, haweeas must be carried, with different colours to denote different territories—again, a way of managing the population through bureaucracy. In the case of Crimea things were rather different. Instead of imposing different types of passport for different ethnic groups, the passport was used by the Russian Federation to ensure maximum assimilation. 

Unrest in Crimea

Last month marked one year since the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. During the course of the annexation very little was mentioned in relation to ethnic cleansing. In fact, the majority of such rhetoric surrounding the practice came from the Russian side, arising from fears that ethnic cleansing of Russians might be carried out by Neo-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists. The conflict in east Ukraine continues to this day, but the case of Crimea seems to have been forgotten. To understand this unusual form of ethnic cleansing in Crimea via the passport, it is necessary to first understand the historical background to the annexation.

On February 26, 2014 a group of Crimean Tatars clashed with Pro-Russian separatists in the city of Simferopol. The confrontation between the two groups resulted in a stampede that left two people dead. This was to be the beginning of a broader spate of unrest in the area. With the referendum on the status of Crimea coming up, protest groups began to occupy the centre of Simferopol. The contentious referendum asked whether citizens wanted Crimea to become a part of Ukraine or be annexed to Russia. Crucially, there was no provision in the referendum for Crimea to retain its previous status as an autonomous republic.

Within five days of this confrontation, reports began circulating social media that there had been loud explosions heard in Simferopol. Journalists were unclear what had caused them. Videos emerged of armed and masked Russian separatists allegedly trying to take the parliament, and a group of Crimean Tatars were pictured surrounding the building, forming a human shield against them. More videos of flag flying, protests and fighting flooded Twitter and other outlets, but the media’s eye was heavily trained on the Euromaidan movement underway in Kiev. Little attention seemed to be given to the plight of Crimea. The unrest was treated merely as a minor offshoot of the “main event” in the Ukrainian capital.

On March 16, the contentious referendum on the status of Crimea was held in Simferopol. The crisis of legitimacy surrounding the referendum meant that many Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars boycotted it. To vote would have been seen as a legitimising act. Thus, when the results of the referendum finally emerged it was announced that 97 percent were in favour of becoming a part of Russia, with only 3 percent voting to restore the 1992 constitution which would result in the Crimean territory being controlled by Ukraine.

The next day, Vladimir Putin announced that “a referendum was held in Crimea on March 16 in full compliance with democratic procedures and international norms”1. A national rhetoric emerged in the aftermath of the referendum which was based on claims that Crimea was and had always been a primordially-configured Russian territory, with a shared ethno-genesis. Claims such as these were just one of the ways the Russian Federation sought to win popular legitimacy for the annexation of the territory.

In order to consolidate its control over Crimea the Russian Federation began an accelerated process of issuing new Russian passports to citizens of Crimea. Such a process rendered former Ukrainian passports void. For many ethnic Russians this was a cause for celebration. For others, it was seen as a form of forced assimilation. This practice should be seen and called out for what it was: a form of ethnic cleansing. 

Passport Politics and Forced Assimilation

In the days following the referendum in Crimea citizens fell under the control of the Russian Federation. Within only a week, citizens were forced to make a difficult choice: to take on Russian citizenship, granting them their existing rights in Crimea, and a Russian passport, or to revoke the prospect of a Russian passport and identify as nationally Ukrainian. According to reports, the process for opting to retain Ukrainian citizenship was woefully vague and blighted by bureaucratic sink-holes, making it incredibly difficult for people to reasonably opt out. To increase the pressure placed on citizens to take a Russian passport, the federation promptly passed into law an act which would mean that all citizens of Crimea who opted to retain their Ukrainian citizenship had their right to remain indefinitely on the territory revoked. 

This new legislation brought in by the Russian parliament discriminated against those who did not conform to the Russian identity being imposed upon them. In fact the entire transition process of citizens from Ukrainian to Russian was highly coercive in nature. The bureaucratic opacity of the whole process meant that many who did not want to assimilate were left with no other option. 

Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower might be considered in this situation to understand how, and why Russia might have begun issuing passports in such an assimilationist way, rather than forcibly creating an underclass by the means of bureaucracy as in South Africa or Palestine. Foucault’s concept of biopower is relevant because it concerns the diverse techniques that modern nation states use to regulate their populations.

Foucault thinks of biopower as encompassing a variety of techniques which states may employ to cultivate their own populations. Foucault states that biopower comes into play as a result of the shift in sovereign power from a medieval monarchic mode of governance which saw rulers enforcing their sovereign right to kill through direct violence, towards more indirect methods of encouraging the growth of some populations over and above others. Biopower turns the equation of medieval sovereign power on its head, by proposing a mode through which the sovereign encourages the well-being and growth of national subjects with characteristics desirable to the state, whilst indirectly creating conditions which diminish the growth and success of populations that diverge from those same desirable characteristics. Foucault therefore saw the management of the composition of the nation state’s population as an object of political strategy. 

In the present case, Crimeans were considered by Russia to be ethnically Russian, and therefore to hold the desired national characteristics which might consider Russia to encourage their growth. What they didn’t have was the paper-work, the passport, which would enable the Russian state to claim them as national subjects. 

In Crimea adopting a Russian passport determined more than just an amendment to official statistics. It was used by the Russian state as a means of harnessing biopower, and in Foucault’s terms, letting die those who were not willing to assimilate and making live a greater, stronger, primordially configured Russian people. In contrast to other states where biopower has been employed as a means of theorising the direct subjugation of particular ethnic groups, Russia’s method of encouraging growth in its own population regardless of their identification must be seen in the specific geographic, ethnic and strategic context of Crimea, in which an edge of legitimacy could be lent to the annexation if it could be proved that there was a concerted will of the people to become Russian.

In the aftermath of the referendum, Russia was offering a “passport in an hour” service, and within a few months over one million Russian passports had been issued. 

The motive behind Russia’s decision to issue so many passports goes against the  conventional understanding that the state considers citizenship, and the passport an indicator of privilege. The passport, and by extension the citizenship it grants is considered an honour by many states. To be granted citizenship is, from the state’s point of view, is a kind of proof that one is worthy to be included as a part of the nation. Passports are bureaucratic mechanisms which designate who is within and who without. Because of their direct link to citizenship they can be understood as boundary-making documents, determining who is protected by the sovereign, and who falls outside that protection as an alien or outsider.

In the case of Crimea, Russia used its prerogative to grant passports for biopolitical purposes. Russia’s act of forcing citizenship upon a people served to legitimise its control over the Crimean peninsula. Such actions enabled them to create and manage the population, whilst expanding the territory of the nation-state.

Foucault states that biopower is “bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them.” It is situated and exercised “at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population.ii. Biopower is a literal means of controlling the bodies of the population, and by receiving a passport and subscribing to the nation one becomes part of that nation’s biopower. 

Russia’s attention in the case of Crimea was directed at the population who were able to hold and constitute Crimea based on their ethnic make-up and citizenship, as converted Russian biopower. In Russia’s new Crimea the locus of control and power is based on the bureaucratic institution of the passport, and its creation of ‘legitimate’ Russian citizens. Building on biopower, the conversion to Russian identity can and should be seen in relation to the role of statistics as a biopolitical mechanism. By creating statistically legitimate Russian citizens on the ground, the occupation of the territory itself could become more defensible by statistical means.

With respect to Crimea, Russia used passports to manipulate the population statistics of Crimea to their advantage, enforcing Foucault’s notion of statistics as a set of “technical knowledges that describes the reality of the state itself.”1 By encouraging new citizenship in the contested region of Crimea, Russia has created a statistical reality on the ground which continues to facilitate and legitimise its governance. 

Russia’s use of passports shifts our dominant understanding of ethnic cleansing into the abstract. If any group enables us to understand how this type of assimilationist strategy might be deemed a form of cleansing, it is the Crimean Tatars. For Crimea’s native Tatars, taking Russian citizenship was an almost unthinkable step. Many families remember the population transfers and ethnic cleansing suffered at the hands of Russian troops in the past. Between 1942 and 1943 Josef Stalin ordered more than 230,000 Crimean Tatars be deported from their homeland to Uzbekistan on claims that the Tatars had collaborated with the Nazis. The conditions faced by those deported were so poor that almost half died in transit from either disease or starvation. It was only after the fall of the USSR that Tatars began to return to their homeland in any significant numbers.

The Tatars, who claim to be indigenous to Crimea, are a minority in the territory, which was majority Russian even in advance of Russia’s passport policy. The Tatars have been coerced into accepting inclusion within the nation which ethnically cleansed their people. Such a coercive measure is typical of what David Goldberg would understand as the kind of racialized state policy which seeks to institutionalise homogeneity in order to counter the threat of heterogeneity.2 Russia’s passport system sought to firmly embed this homogeneity into the legal underbelly of the nation by “creating” Russian citizens out of passports. 

Limited Options in a Russian State

The project of coercive assimilation practiced by Russia can and should be seen as a form of ethnic cleansing, even if that cleansing is operated at an indirect and bureaucratic level. Such assimilationist violence betrays a rhetoric of ethnic cleansing which is evident in the cultivation of Russian identity, and the dilution of other ethnic identities such as Ukrainian, or in this case Crimean Tatar. 

For the Crimean Tatars the practical next steps given the annexation of the territory are few. The passport project means that their indigeneity and rootedness is once again threatened. The spiritual leader of the Tatar community has since been banned from the peninsula and the discriminatory law put in place by Russia shortly after the annexation means that minorities occupying the peninsula have had their right to indefinitely occupy the territory revoked. A further level of bureaucracy has been added in the form of renewable residence permits, which maintain a layer of uncertainty and precarity to the group’s existence. In the newly annexed territory Crimean Tatars have also been denied access to government and municipality jobs, as well as being asked to vacate the land they live on in some cases. While Russian citizens are granted many of the rights one would expect in a modern state, those who have refused to assimilate are made into an underclass whose opportunities for economic, cultural and social growth are stunted. 

So soon after their return Tatars are faced with the decision of whether to stay or to leave. Just six months after the annexation an estimated 10,000 Tatars had already fled Crimea. For others, leaving their homeland again is not an option. The political outlook for Tatars appears bleak. A number of those who have fled the peninsula have simply moved across the border from Russian occupied Crimea and into mainland Ukraine, where the law does not marginalise their activities. For those who have stayed the opportunities for resistance are limited, with Russian Berkut promptly dispersing any significant protest activity and seeking to prosecute where possible. Equally, the ongoing response of the international community has been distinctly muted. Crimea has long been a contested territory, and perhaps on the backdrop of intensifying East-West tensions involvement in Crimea would be one step too far. 

One year on we should not forget the plight of the Crimean Tatars, nor fail to recognise coercive strategies of passport issuance, discriminatory laws, and enforced precarity as methods of ethnic cleansing, however abstract they may be. A passport is not always a privilege. For many Crimeans it has proved a burden.



1. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-78 (Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 354.

2. David. T. Goldberg. The Racial State (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 2001).

Gareth Davies is Associate Editor at Warscapes magazine. He graduated from the University of York with a BA in English and Related Literature. He is currently studying towards an MPhil in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict at Trinity College Dublin. He has experience in writing about representations of conflict in film and literature, and his research focuses on genocide theory and military technology. Follow him on Twitter at @garethaledavies.

Image via Radio Free Europe.