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Russia calls Ukrainians in Crimea ‘foreigners’ and forces them to sell or lose their land

07.05.2020
Halya Coynash

Russia’s new move to strip Ukrainians of their own land in Crimea is in flagrant violation of Ukrainian and international law and will bring consequences, both for Russia and for those Russians who ‘buy’ land illegally expropriated from Ukrainians.

At a joint briefing on 6 May, the Crimean Prosecutor’s Office, Office of the President’s Representative on Crimea and human rights groups spoke of methods to protect Ukrainians from losing their land following the illegal decree issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin on 20 March 2020. 

As reported, the decree makes amendments to a list of “coastal territories” which “foreign nationals, stateless persons and foreign legal entities” cannot have land rights to. The list includes most parts of occupied Crimea, except for three regions without access to the Black Sea.  Since Russia, as invader and occupying state, is treating Ukrainians as ‘foreign nationals’, the decree effectively strips Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians who have not taken Russian citizenship of their land rights. 

Russia’s new move is in breach of the Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilians which expressly prohibits the destruction or expropriation of property by occupying powers.  The trouble is that Russia is brazenly violating all international treaties with its ongoing occupation of Crimea, and simply stating this will not help the Ukrainians who now face having to sell their land, or have it forcibly sold, almost certainly for very little money, by 20 March 2021. 

Anton Korynevych, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Representative on Crimea,  immediately condemned the move and his Deputy, Darya Sviridova pointed out at the briefing that all Ukrainians whose land is expropriated are victims of an armed conflict.  As reported earlier, the International Criminal Court’s Prosecutor has recognized Russia’s ongoing occupation of Crimea as an international armed conflict.  Sviridova stressed that Ukraine must now create effective procedure for reinstating all documents confirming ownership rights; establishing the principles for returning expropriated property; and recording all such cases of expropriation, destruction of property, etc.  

Ukraine has clearly stated that it does not recognize this ‘decree’ and that the latter therefore carries no legal consequences.  That means that, even if the property is expropriated and Russians consider themselves to be the new owners, the land remains the property of those who were illegally stripped of their rights.

In theory, the law is not retroactive and should only apply to land which became ‘a foreign national’s’ property after it came into force.  However it was noted that, if Russia obeyed such fundamental principles of law, there would have been no need for the briefing.  In fact, there has already been widespread expropriation of land on the basis of court rulings which illegally reassessed the legitimacy of pre-annexation land allocation according to Russian legislation, and the same thing will doubtless happen here.

Russia has made it virtually impossible to live in occupied Crimea without Russian citizenship, however those who have refused to take such citizenship now risk losing their property.  The decree will also negatively affect the large number of Ukrainians who were forced from their homes and who now live outside Crimea. 

Nor are those who were forced to take on Russian citizenship necessarily protected. There have been a number of cases where Russia’s migration service have illegally invalidated such citizenship.  The prospect of being able to illegally purchase choice pieces of land could lead to such illegal practices becoming more widespread. 

According to Vitaly Sekretar, Deputy Crimean Prosecutor, as many as 10 thousand Ukrainians could suffer as a consequence of this decree and its implementation.

People are advised to first exhaust all (supposed) legal remedies in first-level; appeal and cassation ‘courts’ in occupied Crimea.  While the outcome can be predicted in advance, this is required in order to then lodge individual applications against Russia with the European Court of Human Rights.  Such applications should not be made in private.  It is important that people collect all documentation confirming their ownership rights and that they inform the Ukrainian enforcement bodies of the situation.  Cooperation is also valuable with the Crimean Prosecutor who will be sending all information about such evident violations to the International Criminal Court at the Hague.

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