Referendum Day

The Crimea Exodus Has Begun

As pro-Moscow squads are intimidating locals to vote ‘yes’ to join Russia, many Ukraine nationalists and ethnic Tatars are trying to make arrangements to temporarily leave the region.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

For locals in Crimea, who are will be voting today on the referendum on whether to join Russia, future prospects don’t look bright.

In the run-up to the vote, Russian media has been churning out non-stop propaganda about how thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing into Russia proper to escape neo-Nazis and fascists. But the reality is that many Crimeans are fleeing north to other regions of Ukraine, to escape the local militias manned by Russian separatists. This weekend, as reports surfaced of Russian armed forces landing in Kherson, the escape to safety seemed even more pressing for the region’s pro-Kiev activists and ethnic minority Tatars.

Tamily Tasheva is a Crimean Tatar from Simferopol. Now, she coordinates a civil campaign, KRYM.SOS (“Crimea SOS”) to inform people about events on the peninsula, which has been largely shut off from the outside world.

“Women with children and older people are temporarily leaving Crimea for Kiev and Western Ukraine,” Tasheva says. “They will be hosted in boarding houses and in volunteers’ apartments for free. In the last five days, about 500 people have asked for information about asylum for us.”

The Memetov family could soon be one such group of asylum seekers. They live near Yevpatorya, in the Ismail-Bey district. Their little son, Arelan, runs around with his toy gun, but his father, Osman, had to get a real one to protect his house. He bought it not from far-right Ukrainians, as the Kremlin would have people believe, but from Russian separatists who see local Tatars as a serioius threat to the next referendum.

In Pervomayskoye village, eight men from a Crimean “self-defense” squad intimidated local Tatar activist Ilyas Ibrahimov. "I am against the division of Ukraine and everybody knows it," Ibrahimov says. "They caught me in the very center of our village and asked if was going to vote in the referendum. When I said ‘no’, they answered ‘Be careful, we know where your house, know all your family.’”

One of Ibrahimov’s neighbors, Alitsya Bilyevytch, says, “people with bludgeons and sticks broke into my apartment the other evening … they just broke my door lock and asked me, ‘Do you have a reason to be here?’ I showed my passport, but they weren't satisfied and said, ‘We have some negative information about you and your family. How are you going to vote in our referendum?’ My hands are still shaking. The people were decorated with Georgian stripes, which are the symbol of Russian imperialism."

Meanwhile, a demonstration in support of a united Ukraine in Yalta, in southern Crimea, was attacked by an aggressive crowd waving Russian flags. According to demonstrators on the scene, the thugs attacked women, children and the elderly and shredded the Ukrainian flag, crying, “If you don’t like Russia, go live in Ukraine.” The police reportedly did not interfere in the violence.

According to the Right Sector activist Roman Koval, 200 refugee families recently tried to leave Crimea for continental Ukraine but they were blocked by a Crimean self-defense force.

Taras Beresovets is a political analyst of Crimea origin. He is sure that Ukraine is now witnessing the beginning of a long process of annexation and flight. He predicts that after the March 16 referendum, the suppression of dissidents and even ethnic cleansing could become more common. "At least 100,000 people will leave Crimea then", Beresovets said. If so, such actions would certainly be within Putin’s USSR 2.0 playbook. In the 20th century, Stalin cleared the Crimean peninsula of Tatars, who were seen as disloyal threats and shipped off to the gulags, and resettled the land with Russian communists and soldiers. Half a century later, like his forebears, Putin now seems intent upon turning Crimea into an outpost of Moscow and intimidating or eliminating anyone who opposes his plan.