By Alexandra Brzozowski
(EurActiv) — An international summit initiated by Ukraine reaffirmed on Monday (23 August) commitments to de-occupy Crimea, seven and a half years after Russian troops occupied the strategic Black Sea peninsula.
A “countdown for the de-occupation” is running, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in Kyiv, urging international allies to support the effort.
Speaking at the first Crimea Platform summit, Zelenskiy vowed to “do everything possible to return Crimea, so that Crimea, together with Ukraine, becomes part of Europe”.
“For this, we will use all possible political, legal and first and foremost diplomatic means,”Zelenskiy said, adding that Kyiv needs “effective support at the international level.”
The initiative is a new consultative format launched by Ukraine, aiming to bundle efforts to bring Crimea back under Ukraine’s control and increase international pressure on Russia.
Top officials from 46 countries and blocs took part in the summit, including all EU and each of the 30 NATO members as well as the US.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 after a military invasion, but the peninsula is internationally recognised as part of Ukraine, which wants to regain full control.
The issue “should not disappear from the international agenda for another seven years”, Zelenskiy urged, adding that Ukraine had proposed to focus on “practical work and coordination of efforts on very specific issues”.
According to Kyiv, those would include the strengthening of sanctions and the protection of human rights, as well as overcoming the environmental and economic consequences of the occupation, ensuring free navigation in the Black and Azov Seas.
“The occupation of the Crimean Peninsula began in Moscow, we will definitely start de-occupation of Crimea in Kyiv,” Zelenskiy said.
He called on the countries to name representatives who will liaise with the created office of the Crimea Platform and coordinate its work.
A joint declaration, signed by all 46 summit participants, including 14 country leaders, stressed the possibilities for Ukraine to regain full control of the peninsula.
In his closing remarks, Zelenskiy said it “clearly stipulates the non-recognition of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and contains commitments to consider imposing additional political and diplomatic sanctions on Russia in the case of further aggression.”
Last week, Russia imposed sanctions on the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, his deputy Emine Dzhaparova and the Secretary of Ukraine’s Council of National Security and Defense, Oleksiy Danylov, amongst others, a move Kyiv described as revenge for the organisation of the forum.
Russia, though initially invited, had stressed it would not engage in talks about a return of Crimea to Ukraine, as it sees the meeting as a provocative event and an alleged attack on the territorial integrity of Russia.
Moscow had called on participating countries to withdraw their support or scrap their attendance of the summit, which Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the summit as the “witches’ sabbath”.
Top Western officials at the summit reiterated messages of support for Ukraine.
“We do not and will not recognise the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia, we will continue to staunchly enforce our non-recognition policy, and we will stand tall against any violations of international law,” EU Council President Charles Michel said in Kyiv, adding that the EU’s stance on the matter remains “unwavering”.
However, the EU chief stressed that “unfortunately, Russia continues to act in ways that multiply the negative impact of the annexation”.
“The continued militarisation of the peninsula heavily affects the security situation in the Black Sea region. This should be reversed,” Michel stressed.
Slovenia’s President Borut Pahor, however, raised some eyebrows by emphasising his country’s good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and said he came to Kyiv to call for “sincere dialogue”.
Big shots absent
Although participating countries sent relatively high-level representatives to Kyiv, some have downgraded their presence at the event. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel did not participate, although she came for a bilateral meeting with Zelenskiy.
Asked whether her decision was made in order to please Russia, Merkel said the purpose of her visit on the eve of the meeting was “to discuss both the Minsk Agreements and the Normandy format”, which includes Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was supposed to attend the meeting but was replaced by the economy minister, Peter Altmaier “due to the current situation in Afghanistan”.
The same goes for French President Emmanuel Macron, with France being represented by its economy minister.
Michel criticised the “dire” human rights abuses of citizens in Crimea and the persecution of Crimea’s ethnic Tatar population “due to Russia’s efforts to forcibly integrate the peninsula into its mainland”.
“The Crimean Tatars continue to be persecuted, pressured and have their rights gravely violated – all this and ongoing destructive actions against the peninsula’s cultural heritage must stop,” he added.
Crimean Tatars, who accounted for nearly 15% of Crimea’s 2.3 million people, opposed Moscow’s takeover, and an estimated 30,000 Tatars have fled Crimea since 2014.
There are already more than a hundred political prisoners on the peninsula, some of them convicted to prison terms ranging from 12 to 18 years, in the midst of a relentless crackdown by the Russian authorities.
Moscow, which has banned the Crimean Tatars’ main representative body and some religious groups deemed as Islamic terrorist organisations, has strongly rejected accusations of discrimination against Crimean Tatars.
The summit was opened by a Ukrainian singer of Crimean Tatar descent, Susana Dzhamaladinova, known as Jamala, who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2016 with a song about the 1944 mass deportation of Crimean Tatars on Stalin’s order.
Criticism emerged over the fact that summit communications were run in Ukrainian, English and Crimean-Tatar, but notably not in Russian, the native language of a majority of Crimea’s residents.