Russian president Vladimir Putin has long bewailed the breakup of the Soviet Union as the geopolitical tragedy of 20th century and tomorrow his handpicked leader in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov—a onetime gangster nicknamed “Goblin”—means to offer his mentor compensation with a Soviet-style majority for union with Russia.
It remains unclear whether Crimea’s snap referendum, on whether to return to the Russian fold or remain part of Ukraine, is a nostalgic land-grab or Putin’s first sinister flourish to redraw the Ukrainian and Central European map.
“The Baltic states will be next, if the West doesn’t act,” hazards Ali Khamzin, a senior member of the Mejlis, the main Crimean Tatar organization, which is firmly opposed to Crimea seceding from Ukraine.
Moscow’s warning that it will protect “compatriots” following overnight clashes between Russian separatists and pro-Ukrainian activists in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv is fueling fears that Putin means to seize more of Ukraine than just the ethnic Russian-dominated Black Sea peninsula. Crimea was handed over to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
A build-up of Russian forces on the borders and the overnight re-deployment of some Russian units—including artillery detachments—to north Crimea is adding to the anxiety of Ukraine’s new leaders, who fear a full-scale invasion could be in the offing.
Whatever Putin’s overall objectives, it’s increasingly clear in Crimea that the Moscow-installed pro-Russian authorities will go to great lengths to ensure that the referendum to join Russia will succeed by a super-majority—one to resoundingly answer Western and Ukrainian claims that the sudden plebiscite is an illegitimate stunt.
Even those who support union with Russia guffaw when asked whether the referendum will be above board. Kirill, a 20-year-old biology student who is firmly in the Russian camp, doubts it. “It is hard for old Soviet habits to die off,’” he admits standing outside a cell phone store in a shopping precinct in central Simferopol.
Suspiciously, half-a-million extra ballot papers have been printed for the referendum. Western journalists joke among themselves that it would be handy for their deadlines if Aksyonov, whose political party won a meager four percent of the vote in the regional parliamentary elections in 2010, would provide embargoed results ahead of the official declaration.
Overreach, though, is actually undermining the goal of the Russian separatists. With each turn of the screw—from the closing of Simferopol’s airport to all flights except those from Moscow, to reports of goons cracking down on the sprinkling of sporadic pro-Ukraine protests—the referendum appears more squalid. Little has been left to chance in this stage-managed plebiscite, one straight out of the playbook of Putin’s own presidential elections. The game involves tight media control, fear-mongering and the sabotaging of dissent.
Ukrainian television channels have been knocked off the air, replaced with Russia’s rigidly state-controlled outlets that laud the qualities of Putin’s leadership and broadcast ever more garish claims that the uprising last month against Ukraine’s president and Putin ally, Viktor Yanukovych, was all the handiwork of neo-Nazis and fascists. For ordinary working-class Crimeans not used to searching around the Internet for alternative news sources, the tales of far-right conspiracies are accepted as accurate.
On roadside billboards, posters for the referendum show two maps of Crimea, one painted in bright Russian colors, the other darker and enveloped by a Swastika. There are no posters around that oppose the union with Russia. The 41-year-old Aksyonov says no one has called for them but if anyone had wanted to finance and mount them, that would have been okay.
In the run-up to the referendum Russian separatists have sought to block Ukrainian democracy activists from entering Crimea. Half-a-dozen Ukrainian journalists were turned back at checkpoints this week trying to enter the region. There is only pro-Russian political marketing on television, much of it targeted to older generations with adverts reminding viewers of the sacrifices of the Red Army during the Second World, and spots assuring the elderly—the voters most likely to endorse a break with Ukraine—that pensions and other social payments will be higher once Crimea is back with Mother Russia.
Bands of thuggish pro-Russian separatists clothed in black with red armbands have added to an air of menace and intimidation already firmly established by the presence of the Russian army in the peninsula, which swarmed into Crimea after Yanukovych ‘s ouster. Often drunk and rough and likely drawn from the ranks of the unemployed, their stop-and-searches and questioning of anyone deemed suspicious is unchallenged by local police.
Opponents of union with Russia among the educated young and the region’s Tatar population are a minority but they have been too cowed and weighed down by a feeling that tomorrow’s outcome is a foregone conclusion to even try to mount a concerted countervailing message or organize dissent in a bid to try to persuade the majority to pause and rethink.
Mikhail, a 28-year-old father of one small boy, is an ethnic Russian but says he and his father who run a construction business together, don’t want Crimea to break with Kiev, fearing it will impact badly on their business. “But what can we do to stop this? There is nothing we can do, it is all pre-ordained and why risk anything by expressing our opinion? We will have to do business with the new authorities. “
His opinion is a minority one. Outside the regional parliament here, the silver-haired Yuriy Meshkov, who was President of Crimea between 1994 and 1995 and a long-standing advocate of the region being annexed by Russia, is applauded by a mostly elderly crowd when he tells The Daily Beast: “Crimea belongs to Russia, every meter of the ground is Russian.” Paunchy Cossacks guarding the building and sporting the orange and black ribbons of the military order of St George—commemorating victory over Nazi Germany—on their combat fatigues nod approvingly. They block the path to the parliament, saying lawmakers don’t want to be interviewed by the media.
Aksyonov exudes confidence about the outcome. “I am sure 80 percent of Crimeans support union with Russia,” he told a crowded press conference on Saturday.
Asked how a referendum can be conducted fairly under the guns of the Russian army, Aksyonov raised his arms and looking around the hall and quipped, “Do you see any guns here?” Asked why foreign journalists have been attacked, he responded less sweetly: “If they provoke the Russian military, they deserve everything they get.”
And what of the pro-Russian gangs patrolling mostly urban areas of Crimea? They are self-defense militias protecting Crimeans and deterring neo-Nazis from western Ukraine mounting “provocations,” the prime minister argued in his characteristic rapid-fire delivery.
For others, the self-defense militias add to a sense of intimidation—complementing the few thousand Russian troops deployed in the peninsula. “Most people are scared and lost,” says Vilora, a 20-year-old economics student, whose family is mixed Russian and Crimean Tatar.
Yulia, a final-year languages student, whose parents are pro-Russian, says, “Most people just want to stay safe. You have to understand that Crimea is far from the center. Crimeans are parochial and they have seen many violent changes and they are keen just to go along to get along.”
It isn’t hard to find evidence of fear. The streets of Crimea’s capital have been deserted at night. One of the hottest nightspots in town, the Amsterdam nightclub, was bashing out Euro-techno music on Saturday to an almost empty dance-floor.
The determination to avoid trouble is evident even on the campuses of the region’s universities. At Simferopol’s Tarvid National University, the press officer is polite but says none of the academic staff will agree to be interviewed about the referendum. “The university has a policy not to get involved in politics,” he says after intercepting The Daily Beast in the director’s outer-office.
“You are welcome to talk with the students—but off campus,” he smiles sheepishly.
On the other side of town, academics at the Crimean Economic Institute of Kiev, a branch of Kiev’s National Economic University, are equally reticent. They decline even to discuss what the economic and business ramifications will be for the region after breaking with Ukraine. “No one wants to risk their tenure or promotion by speaking out of turn,” confides a senior professor. “But it is ordinary people who are going to be hit hard by this and it is going to be a long and painful process of adjustment.”
While their teachers shy away from expressing their opinions, students don’t. Out of two-dozen interviewed, only two say they are in favor of Crimea returning to Russia. The others voice frustration, saying that the population has been fed lies by the controlled media and that hysteria has been whipped up about the threat of neo-Nazis.
They fear a break with Ukraine will damage their job and economic opportunities. And they express the same kind of sentiments that young participants at the Maidan protests voiced against the pro-Russian Yanukovych when arguing that turning away from Europe will condemn them to reduced life choices.
“The young here are more contemporary and have progressive-thinking but the older Crimeans hark back to their memories of the Soviet days when they were young and strong,” says Vira, a 21-year-old student. “They can’t accept the situation that Crimea has been part of Ukraine for a long time. In the 21st century it is not normal to make an annexation in such a military way.”
She says: “If the majority wants to be Russian we can hold a referendum and maybe 70 to 80 percent will vote for Russia but it shouldn’t be held now when all these Russian forces are here.”
Several say they worry about limited freedom in Russia and cite the imprisonment of the punk-performance art band Pussy Riot and they say they plan to leave Crimea and move to Ukraine to complete their studies.
But there are students who look to Russia and not Europe.
Dasha, a 24-year-old journalism student, says Ukraine’s parliament did great harm to its cause by abolishing earlier this month a law that allows regions to use Russian as a second language. The acting President vetoed the abolition but the parliamentary move still rankles in Crimea. “The Western Ukrainians are crazy about Europe and Germany but they don’t understand Russia is a great country and they denigrate our Slavic culture,” she says.
The thuggish Aksyonov—who sports the battered nose of a boxer and was elected to his position at a dubious closed-door meeting of Crimea’s parliament that likely didn’t even reach a quorum—has been assuring the international press here that not only is the snap referendum legal (the Western powers and Ukraine’s new leaders in Kiev insist it breaches the country’s constitution which stipulates referenda have to be nationwide) but all the procedures for it will be transparent.
That will be hard to judge: the director of elections has so far failed to divulge many technical details.
He declines press interviews and has avoided appearing before a media conference to be cross-examined about minor matters such as the maintenance of the electoral register, how many ballot papers have been printed and the security and counting procedures to be followed at polling stations. Nor are there any rules in place for how, or who, will judge or resolve electoral disputes or rule on complaints of electoral fraud or vote rigging.
But such Western technical quibbles prompt bitter laughter from Muslim Tatar official Ali Khamzin. The Tatar Mejlis has urged the U.S. and Britain to uphold their end of a 1994 agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity in return for the country giving up its nuclear arsenal. Tatar leaders argue that if Washington and London don’t intervene, no one will ever believe the West’s promises again.
“The count has been made already, everything is counted, all the videos celebrating the union have already been produced,” argues Khamzin. “I am surprised that journalists asks questions as though this is a legitimate poll. This is a fake, false referendum; it is just a spectacle, a show.”
He adds: “You live in a fine democratic country in the U.S. Here we don’t have your developed procedures. Here we have an imperialist power, Russia, and a bunch of chauvinists who want Crimea to join Russia.”
The leaders of Crimea’s quarter-of-a-million Muslim Tatars have urged a boycott of tomorrow’s referendum. Aksyonov says most will still vote and that at least half of the Tatars are pro-Russian separatists and will turnout. Khamzin says that is “a lie.”
Crimean Tatars make up about 12 percent of the Black Sea peninsula’s population and they have endured two centuries of persecution at the hands of Russia stretching back to Czar Alexander II. But for the Tatars, what they endured as a result of Moscow diktats is living history.
Most of the region’s Tatars have only lived in Crimea since 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when they started to return to their ancestral homeland after having been deported on mass by Stalin in 1944. Most were not born in Crimea but in Uzbekistan and the Urals where their parents or grandparents had been dumped as collective punishment on the false pretext of collaboration with the Nazis. About 9,000 Tatars actually fought with the Nazis during the Second World War.
There are still many Tatars around who experienced as small children the forcible deportation that left nearly half of the Tatar population dead, and the tales of the wretched brutality they suffered and witnessed is etched into the community’s consciousness.
Seventy-seven-year-old Guldjihan is one of the survivors. “I remember everything. They came at night,” she sighs. She emphasizes her words with her gnarled hands and she closes her eyes and turns her heavily wrinkled face towards the sun as she recalls how the NKVD, soldiers from the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, rounded up the Tatars from her village of Alushta, about 15 miles from Simferopol, on the night of May 18 1944.
Her strongest memory of the roundup is of her father realizing he wouldn’t be coming back and “opening the door of the livestock shed to let the animals out before we were taken away.” Like thousands of others she, along with her parents and young brother, endured a 28-day train journey in crowded cattle cars, surviving squalor, illness and hunger only to be dumped in Uzbekistan and used as Gulag slave labor.
She is dead-set against the union with Russia and will heed the Tatar leadership’s boycott call.
The Tatar leaders have been careful not to be confrontational, fearing that to do so would lead to violent clashes with Russian separatists. Thousands of Tatars rallied on February 27 in front of local government buildings but since then dissent has been reserved to media interviews. Not that the Russian media has been eager to hear their views during the run-up to Putin being able to say ‘mission accomplished. ‘