Crimean minorities concerned over referendum to break away from Ukraine
Pro-Russia authorities in the Crimea region of Ukraine this week announced a referendum over whether Crimea will break from Ukraine and join Russia. Many people in the region support Russia and are distrustful of the Western-backed interim government in Kiev. But ethnic minorities are fearful about what place they’d have inside a Crimea that’s absorbed into the larger Russian Federation. Jacob Resneck reports.
A tapped phone conversation between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt was released last month. The two discuss who they’ll place in Ukraine’s interim government in the run-up to elections. They decide that Ukraine’s rising star boxer-turned-politican Vitali Klitschko should take a back seat to economist Arseniy Yatsenyuk who could share power with smaller, right-wing nationalist parties.
The State Department never disputed that the tape and conversation were real.
Evidence of Western powers acting as kingmakers in Ukraine angered many in southern and eastern part of the country where Russian-speakers are in the majority. They distrust Washington’s meddling and many look to Moscow to protect their interests.
Nowhere is that more evident than Sevastopol, a navy town in the Crimea and host to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
These past few weeks this city and others have been host to pro-Russia rallies with pop stars, choirs and speeches in which the people were warned that fascists and western puppets had seized power in Kiev.
Adding fuel to the fire, one of the first acts of the Western-backed interim government was a draft bill that would remove Russian as an official language in Ukraine.
That crossed a red line for people here like 37-year-old Mikhail Nichik who stands with a group of friends holding a Russian flag high aloft.
“We want to speak the language which represents our nationality. We are Russians and we want to express ourselves in Russian,” he explains. “We think in Russian. And those laws passed recently – prohibiting the Russian language – are unacceptable for a single reason: I understand the Ukrainian language in general, but I am not able to express my thoughts clearly and articulate properly in Ukrainian.”
The strike against the Russian language was seized upon by pro-Russia outlets. These media outlets have portrayed the bloody violence that killed about 80 protesters and ended with the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych as an armed takeover by right-wing extremists.
Many people here say they only trust Russian media and are only hearing one side of the story.
So when Moscow ordered its forces to occupy Crimea last week many people accepted the explanation that they are a stabilization force.
Russia denies that these soldiers are under its command but it’s become somewhat of a joke as many of the vehicles have Russian military license plates and even the soldiers themselves have admitted to journalists they’d arrived from Russia.
This past week about 250 uniformed Cossacks from western Russia arrived in Sevastopol where they were sworn in to begin joint-patrols with local police.
Thousands of people greeted them with chants of “Russia! Russia!” Their commander, Col. Sergei Savonin Yurievich announced to TV reporters that they’d keep the city safe from outside extremists.
So when the region’s newly installed pro-Russia administration announced they’d hold a March 16 referendum on joining Russia, people here weren’t surprised.
Crimea was absorbed into the Russian Empire in the 18th century. It was in 1954 that it was ceded to Ukraine. But since Russia and Ukraine were both part of the Soviet Union, it didn’t matter until 1991 when they became separate states.
So does everyone here support Russia? Not quite. Up the highway about 35 miles is the town of Bakhchisaray – the heartland that’s home to many Crimean Tatars. They’re a Turkic people who ruled this region up until the Russian conquest in 1783.
There’s a lot of history here. Some of it’s not pleasant. Virtually the entire Tatar population was deported to Central Asia by Stalin in 1944. Some had joined nationalist Ukrainians to side with the Germans and it was collective punishment for what he considered a disloyal nation.
Forty-nine-year-old Enver Umerov is a Crimean Tatar who sits on the city council. He returned here with his family in the 1990s from Uzbekistan where he was born. His family’s tragic history is not exceptional for these parts.
“One of my grandfathers was a Communist and was shot by Germans, my second grandfather was anti-communist and spent 25 years in prison, one of my grandmothers died on the road while being deported and another died of tuberculosis six years after being deported to a harsh climate,” he says.
Since the Tatars returned here they’ve now make up about a quarter of the population. People get along with their neighbors.
“Relations have been good for the past 25 years of peaceful existence,” he says. “We’ve learned how to get along. But currently we are worried about recent provocations from outside.”
For this community the presence of Russian troops is occupation. They don’t trust the Kremlin and fear another campaign of Russification.
Ahmet Chiygoz is head of the local Mejlis, that’s the Tatar council for this community. He says there’s fear of staged provocations – acting on the orders of Moscow – that would lead to inter-ethnic fighting.
“The people of different nationalities who live here would never do such a thing it could only come from elsewhere,” Chiygoz said. “We are expecting as according to Putin’s plan, this could be groups of people appearing to be Crimean Tartars attacking ethnic Russian families or the opposite.”
These fears are rooted on historical fact. There are many stories of staged provocations in other breakaway republics following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
These Tartars say they’re not ready to take up arms. That would be responding to the provocation. For now they’re setting up neighborhood watches to keep an eye out after dark.
After the sun sets, about a dozen men stand around in a nervous clump chewing sunflower seeds and chain-smoking. A story has been circulating about a strange car photographing the checkpoints and they’re a little shaken.
“We spend sleepless nights so our children can rest,” says 48-year-old Ernest Bekirov, a soft-spoken man in a brown leather jacket. “We know our efforts are small, but us Tartars have a proverb that: Drop by drop one makes a big lake.”
But with a hastily announced referendum on independence over whether to join Russia about a week away, there are fears that old animosities could erupt into new conflicts.
In the meantime, Ukraine is mobilizing for war as Russia has ignored protests that it’s about to annex the territory of a neighbor.