A Russian flag is seen at the entrance of Crimea's regional parliament building in Simferopol. Photo: AFP
In Crimea’s capital, locals are sticking handwritten notes under a statue of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, thanking Russia for stepping in.
Along the unkempt streets of Simferopol, the regional capital, Russian flags hang from the mix of Tsarist and Khrushchev-era buildings looming over tents acting as makeshift recruiting centers for the local militia. Posters with the slogan “Together with Russia!” adorn walls.
For Alina Berezhnaya, a referendum on joining Russia is about a fear of Ukraine’s new Western-backed government, branded extremists by the Kremlin and Russian media, and two decades of neglect that’s left her city crumbling.
“I’ve seen what’s going on in Kiev, these new guys are fascists,” said Berezhnaya, a 50-year-old housewife. “I’m scared.”
President Putin has rekindled Cold War tensions as his forces wrest control of Crimea, where ethnic Russians dominate, after an uprising in Kiev unseated Moscow-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych. While Europe and the U.S. say tomorrow’s referendum is illegal and are threatening to ramp up sanctions against Russia, four-fifths of Crimea’s 2 million residents may take part, according to the region’s prime minister.
“It’s a done deal -- turnout will be reasonably high and it’s clear that the majority of Crimeans are spooked by what’s happening in Kiev,” Boris Makarenko, a deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, said by phone. “They don’t need to cheat, but that doesn’t make the election valid in terms of international law. Nobody has to cheat in North Korean elections, either.”
The people of Crimea, about 60 percent of whom are ethnic Russians, fully support the switch, said Sergei Aksenov, the region’s premier. He estimates integration with Ukraine’s neighbor may take a year. Crimea, whose Sevastopol port houses Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, was part of Russia until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954.
“People have very strong patriotic feelings -- they all want this accession,” Aksenov, who was appointed last month after pro-Russian gunmen took over the parliament in Simferopol, said March 12. “They support us and we feel this support.”
The referendum offers the choice of joining Russia or renegotiating the autonomous region’s status within Ukraine. Keeping the current arrangement isn’t an option.
The vote will be held with the peninsula under the control of Russian forces, with as many as 19,000 seizing key sites such as airports, ferry crossings and military bases at gunpoint, Ukrainian border guards estimate. The troops, who are backed up by a 15,000-strong pro-Russian militia, are only reinforcing their bases in the region, according to Putin.
He says ethnic Russians are in jeopardy after Yanukovych’s ouster and suggestions lawmakers would remove Russian as an official language, an accusation Ukraine and the West deny. Russian state television channels that are piped into Crimea paint Ukraine’s new leaders as right-wing extremists intent on causing mayhem, a view that’s gaining credence locally.
“If the government was useful and friendly to us, who’d mind living in Ukraine?” said Olga Korzhunovskaya, a 44-year-old shop assistant. “But they weren’t and aren’t now. I can’t stand the new government, they’re not trustworthy.”
The 1.5 million voters who’ll head to the polls this weekend are also being promised economic benefits.
Social spending will quadruple if Crimea joins Russia, where pensions are twice as high as in Ukraine, according to the referendum2014.ru website. Russian state employees also earn more than their Ukrainian counterparts, with wages in the military three to four times higher, data on the site show.
Russia plans to provide Crimea with $6 billion of investments and budget financing and double the region’s budget, according to the site. Russia’s parliament has said it will review a bill to ease Crimea’s annexation after March 17.
“Of course I’ll vote to join Russia, like my colleagues, family and friends -- I cant see who would say otherwise,” said Natalya Druzhnikova, 27, a tour guide. “There was no money coming to us, we have resorts and we were still poor. Under Russia we’ll feel much safer and the tourism business will thrive.”
Even so, sentiment toward the potential Russia switch may not be as clear-cut as Crimea’s new administration suggests. Kiev’s International Institute of Sociology has halted polls in the region, with people reluctant to open their doors and agree to interviews, its head, Vladimir Paniotto, said by phone.
A Feb. 8-18 poll by the Kiev-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation published March 10 showed 41 percent of people supported a union with Russia. No number was given for those opposed, according to the survey of 2,032 people, which had a margin of error of as much as 2.2 percentage points.
Alexei, an entrepreneur from Simferopol who declined to give his last name because he opposes the referendum, equates Russia’s takeover to a person being wed against their will.
“People have lives to lead here -- what happens to their savings, businesses, loans that need to be repaid?” he said. “Everything’s decided without us. I’d rather see wider autonomy and think about drastic changes when things have settled down.”
The referendum is also raising the specter of ethnic tensions, with nationalist Tatars clashing last month with Russians outside parliament over the region’s status.
Tatars represent 12 percent of Crimea’s population, while Ukrainians account for 24 percent, according to the 2001 census. Aksenov has moved to offer Tatars jobs in the new government, Russia’s state-run Ria Novosti news service said.
Liza Vagutskaya, a 30-year-old designer who lives in Simferopol, is troubled by the vote and its implications.
“We always lived in peace with each other, no matter of the religion, nationality or traditions,” she said at a rally in support of Crimea remaining with Ukraine. “I’m a Russian who married a Crimean Tatar many years ago. How should I behave now? What do they expect me to do?”
Ukraine’s interim Premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk says Crimea will remain a part of his country, a stance that’s backed by European leaders and the U.S. While “nobody doubts” the referendum will pass, there will be “very serious” steps the following day, Secretary of State John Kerry said March 13. Six hours of talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov yesterday in London failed to end the impasse.
Kerry’s threats are of scant concern to 77-year-old Anna Ponamorenko and her husband, Alexei, two pensioners who’ve lived in Crimea for 40 years and are desperate to join Ukraine’s former Soviet master.
“I can’t believe that after the referendum I’ll wake up and I’ll be living in Russia,” Alexei said. “I’m counting the days on my calendar until this happens.”