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Crimea under Putin: Enthusiasts & Dissenters

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(This article was originally published in the Norwegian weekly Morgenbladet)

Retired navy officer Yury Mishin says he was on the verge of tears when he realised Crimea might be incorporated into Russia. “I remember how back in the service days I was thrilled every time I heard the Soviet anthem while lining up on the deck of my nuclear missile carrier for the morning check. It was the very same feeling”.

A battle reenactment enthusiast and a collector of vintage Soviet cars, Mishin runs the ‘Funny Dolphin’ hostel in Sevastopol. It used to cater almost exclusively to Western backpackers, but there is none in town since Crimea was annexed by Russia in March this year. Mishin’s wife lost her job as an English-language guide when Western cruise liners stopped calling at Sevastopol, while agencies specialising in war history tours suspended trips to Balaklava battlefield.

Mishin says sales in his hostel have dropped by more than 50% this year, although in September they started picking up as more Russians headed to Crimean looking for jobs or property in the stunningly beautiful peninsula with comfortable Mediterranean climate. Crimeans have been facing a multitude of problems after the annexation – skyrocketing prices, problems with food supplies, power blackouts and food shortages.

This is however compensated by much higher pensions and salaries in the budget sector, so most people – Mishin included – don’t seem to regret the changes. Yet, there are many dissenters, most notably the Crimean Tatars as well as a small part of ethnic Russian middle class and intelligentsia.

Raids and Boycott

Dissent doesn’t go well with the new authorities. On Tuesday, special forces seized the office of Crimean Tatar umbrella organisation, the Mejlis, in the Crimean capital, Simferopol. The building was cordoned off by masked armed people without insignia as security agents searched the offices of Mejlis leaders.

Masses of documents as well as all computers were removed in what the authorities said was a part of an investigation into the events of May 3, when thousands of Crimean Tatars attempted to create a human corridor across the newly emerged border between Crimean and mainland Ukraine to let in their deported leader, Mustafa Jemilev. “The authorities are trying to provoke the Crimean Tatars into violence in order to justify the use of force and weapons against them”, Mejlis foreign affairs coordinator Ali Khamzin told Morgenbladet.

He also said the Russians were avenging Crimean Tatars for the boycott of September 14 election – the first since the annexation. It was conducted under the new legislation with representatives of Russian political parties running for seats in Crimea’s parliament and the city council of Sevastopol, an independent entity under the law. The election resulted in Russia’s ruling party, the United Russia, winning virtually all seats in both bodies.

Crimean Tatars ruled the peninsula until it was colonised by Russian empress Catherine the Great in the 18th century. In 1944, Stalin’s government accused them of collaborating with Hitler and sent the entire people into exile in Central Asia and Siberia, with thousands dying on the way and in the first years of the exile. Crimean Tatars were not allowed to return until the final years of the USSR. Vast majority of those currently living in Crimea repatriated in the 1990s. Crimean Tatars make up at least 12% of the population and remain staunchly pro-Ukrainian.

Dilyara Seitveliyeva, whose family runs a small guesthouse and a restaurant in the sleepy central Crimean town of Bakhchysaray, formerly the capital of Crimean Tatar khans, fought for the right to live in the land of her ancestors back in the 1970s. She and her husband managed to return from Central Asia and linger in a remote Crimean village for four years despite constant harassment by the KGB before being expelled together with elderly parents and two children. She could only return in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, her brother, Mustafa Jemilev, was in prison for defending the Crimean Tatar cause. One of the most prominent Soviet-era dissidents and a friend of Andrey Sakharov, these days he is the undisputed political leader of the Crimean Tatars, while Seitveliyeva now finds herself in a situation reminiscent of the Soviet times.

The restaurant run by Seitveliyeva’s family was raided by police a few days after it featured in a Russian TV documentary aimed at smearing Jemilev, who was banned from entering Crimea back in April. “Six plainclothes detectives aided by six gunmen broke into the premises with no prior warning and started checking every bit of the property”, Seitveliyeva says. The prosecutor’s office eventually opened criminal cases with the view to closing both the hotel and the restaurant under the pretext of minor irregularities caused by contradictions in the Ukrainian legislation, which could be used against every single business in Crimea.

Seitveliyeva is the head of the Crimean Tatar teachers’ union. On the day of the election, she was with an all-female group of about 30 Crimean Tatar teachers holding a workshop on adapting their classes to the rules imposed by the Russians. Asked if any of them voted in the Russian election, they all shook heads in disapproval.

The meeting was presided over by veteran teacher Sultaniye Kharakhady who went through utter hell in order to be able to live in Crimea back in the Soviet times. Bizarrely, KGB left her alone after she threatened to complain about her treatment to Mother Teresa. Asked why the Crimean Tatars were boycotting the election, she said: “This new government came to power in a military coup. So why should we go to the polling stations and endorse their dictatorship and the annexation”.

Another veteran teacher, Fatime Saytullayeva, regrets that the Ukrainian army didn’t offer armed resistance to the Russian invasion. “At the time, we praised Ukrainian soldiers for not opening fire. But now I think they should have started shooting”.

Self-defence

Polling station in Bakhchysaray were not exactly swarming with people on the election day, September 14, as Morgenbladet observed. An election official conceded it was due to the high percentage of Crimean Tatar population.

By contrast, people queued for hours at a polling station in Sevastopol, a city largely populated by people linked to the Russian navy and attracting large numbers of Russian military pensioners. Vladimir, who owns a smallish bar facing Sevastopol’s spectacular harbour, was guarding a polling station in the suburb of Inkerman as part of the city’s self-defence – a paramilitary group that assisted the Russian army during the invasion. Like many residents, he wasn’t born in Sevastopol and came here from Russia only six years ago.

“When I was joining the self-defence, I told my wife that I would defend Sevastopol from the fascists at any price”, he says. By “fascists” he means the participants in pro-European protests that rocked Kiev last winter. He nearly went to fight on the Russian side in east Ukraine, but the family persuaded him not do so. Many of his comrades from the self-defence did go there. One of the died – got burnt in a take. Another one spent a month in Sevastopol recovering from serious wounds and went back to fight.

Vladimir expressed his dismay at the lack of local support to pro-Russian fighters in Donbass: “These miners who claimed they would be the first to rise up, they are still working in the mines. Well, you know who is fighting there – [former Ukrainian] special forces men, war veterans and of course the Russian military who take vacations in order to go and fight”.

The hostel owner Yury Mishin, who also joined the self-defence back in February, says many of his friends from war reenactment groups were also fighting and dying in Donbass. Incidentally, the most famous Donetsk Republic commander Igor Girkin aka Strelkov had also been active in the war reenactment community, although Mishin claims he never met personally.

But the support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not unanimous even in the overwhelmingly pro-Russian Sevastopol. Just a hundred metres away from a polling station in Sevastopol, a lamp post was decorated with a hand-made poster featuring Putin’s name paired with an obscene word.

Voices of dissent among ethnic Russians, who make up a majority in the peninsula, are not difficult to come by. Many middle class people who in previous years were not particularly enthused by the Ukrainian independence got outraged by how Russia handled the takeover of Crimea.

A captain in charge of a pleasure boat based in the beautiful Balaklava fjord, 35-year-old Konstantin Sandulov says he considered himself to be Russian up until the invasion when he discovered that after 23 years of Ukrainian independence he was in fact a staunch patriot of Ukraine. He is now planning to leave Crimea where he was born and lived all his life.

“I hate indecency. I was brought up to believe that if there is a contract, or especially an international treaty, it should be observed. What Russia has done to Ukraine is just so utterly indecent that I decided I want to be Ukrainian rather than Russian”, he says referring to Russia’s failure to observe its obligations regarding Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Sandulov believes Ukraine has by and large lost Crimea, which in his opinion can only be returned by military means or by cutting it from supplies delivered from mainland Ukraine. He says he is more worried about the fate of his country as a whole: “Europeans shouldn’t stay passive. If Russia succeeds in grabbing Ukraine, they will be next. A predator who has tasted blood cannot be stopped. It will be slaughtering one victim after another, like Hitler did in WWII”.

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Written by fullofbias

September 23, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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