When I arrived in Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula, my friends and family didn’t really know where it was. Now, everyone does.
Over the past two weeks it has become the focus of intense media attention as troops have surrounded key strategic sites, ships have blockaded Sevastopol Bay, and politicians in Europe, America and Russia have played power games. I’ve written about my reactions to these events in another post.
From within, it doesn’t feel like an invasion. I don’t know what an invasion should feel like.
The troops (whatever you may call them) have arrived gradually, and have focussed on military bases and strategic points. One student (in his 40s) told me that it’s not an invasion because the troops were already here, and the land is rightfully Russian, and he’s not the only one who’s said this to me. He didn’t mention the agreement which gives the Russian military permission to be here, requiring them to confirm troop movements before they are made. He did say that it was inevitable that the peninsula would become Russian again sooner or later.
This view was echoed by two older ladies from Simferopol in my compartment on the train back from Kiev, who took time to patiently explain (in Russian) that ‘Crimea has always been and will always be part of Russia’ to the younger woman from Sevastopol who was in the same compartment.
Another student described the fears of his Jewish wife, who had heard about a rise in anti-Semitism in other parts of Ukraine, including attacks on Jews. They were so worried that they spent two days at Simferopol airport trying to leave the country. As more troops arrived in Crimea, they decided that they didn’t need to leave any more, as they were now safe from attacks from the rest of Ukraine. This is what the Jerusalem Post has to say about claims of potential anti-Semitism in Crimea.
He’s not the only one who has told me that the presence of the troops makes them feel safe. There are examples of it in the media too. Here’s a retired actor who lives in Crimea, and is old enough to remember the Second World War:
So what did he think when Russian soldiers suddenly appeared last week on the streets of the regional capital city, a silent, heavily armed presence that surrounded the local parliament and deployed around Ukrainian military bases?
He was relieved. “If the Russians weren’t here, the government of Ukraine would come and occupy us,” said Vladimir Sukhenko, a retired stage actor. “They would make us speak Ukrainian.”
From The Washington Times
Of course, all of the people I’ve spoken to have been in Sevastopol, so I imagine this is not reflected across all communities and across the peninsula. In fact, I would be very surprised if it is.
The soldiers on both sides, Ukrainian and Russian, have remained admirably calm, and I put the fact that there has been no outright violence down to their control.
Maybe it is obvious, but it is worth stressing, that despite the movement of Nato hardware on Europe’s borders, no-one sensible is talking about military action. Indeed, it is striking that not even stupid people are talking about military action.
When I told my students in Sevastopol that I was planning to leave the city for Kiev, many of them told me it would be more dangerous there. This echoes what Ann Loseva (who lives in Russia) said in a comment on a previous post of mine:
It was only yesterday that in a family conversation (very tense too) I told my parents about your situation, and they were a bit shocked about the decision to go to Kiev. From what we/they get from the news, Kiev seems to be a far more dangerous place to be staying at…
There seems to be a feeling that Kiev is a city of anarchy, and this is not even close to what I saw when I was there last week.
As in Sevastopol, life is continuing as normal away from Maidan (where the main protests took place), and even on Maidan there was a very subdued atmosphere. Even when I was out at night with my friend, I felt safe.
This mirrors the fears of those outside Sevastopol about the situation here.
As far as my opinions on the government in Kiev go, while I now wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re illegitimate (which I did originally think, but have now reconsidered), I do believe that they do not truly represent the people of Ukraine. Therefore, they should not sign long-lasting agreements like those with the EU, and I am not happy that the EU is letting them do this, and (maybe) even encouraging them to. That should only be done by an elected government, as there are many in the country who do not want closer ties with Europe. They should instead focus on the internal problems of the country, and working towards far-reaching reform. The interim government clearly have a lot of work to do to rescue the country, and as the prime minister stated, the changes they have to make will be difficult to swallow:
“We are to undertake extremely unpopular steps as the previous government and previous president were so corrupted that the country is in a desperate financial plight,” Mr Yatsenyuk told BBC Ukrainian.
From the BBC
When the government first changed hands in Kiev, some people told me they were worried about how the interim government was made up. There was condemnation of the fact that members of far-right parties were included. It was not uncommon to hear the words ‘neo-Nazi’ and ‘fascist’ to describe the government as a whole.
Since I came back to Sevastopol on Monday it’s difficult to miss this interpretation of the ‘threat’ to Crimea. It’s on billboards all over the city:
This is one of about six (maybe more) different billboards I’ve seen which are intensely pro-Russian, many of which use the word ‘fascism’. The one which I particularly dislike is shown in this article from NBC news, and an example of it has appeared outside my window. I would be very interested to know who’s paying for all of these billboards.
The pro-Ukrainian/pro-autonomy billboards are conspicuous by their absence.
The role of the media
This is all part of the information war going on between Ukraine and Russia, with both sides laying on the propaganda very thick.
There has been a lot of coverage of the way the state-controlled Russian media has been used to support what is happening in Crimea. Here are articles about it from the BBC, CTV news (Canada), The Daily Beast and The Guardian newspaper (UK). Mediaite have collected examples of the stories being shared in some Russian media. I have heard some of these media claims repeated by various people I know, for example about the spread of fascism if Crimea is not protected, that the overthrow of Yanukovych was somehow masterminded by the West/Americans, and that those manning the road-blocks into Crimea and around cities like Sevastopol are protecting the local people.
The Russian media also discuss the propaganda put out by Western media. There is also a new radio station in Sevastopol, set up to broadcast the ‘truth’ about the situation. As a Westerner, lucky enough to grow up in the country of the BBC, which I believe is as balanced and neutral as possible, it’s hard for me to take these claims seriously. That’s not to say that the Western media aren’t choosing to cast events in a certain way to play to their audience, but bias and propaganda are not the same thing. It is important to read everything critically, however much you may trust the source.
The Ukrainian media is not completely blameless here either, and I’m surprised that it is not being analysed just as much as the Russian media. While I was in Kiev I was informed that:
Putin said if the West don’t want World War Three, they’ll give him Crimea.
This was hot off the Ukrainian TV station the speaker was watching, but was not reproduced anywhere in the media sources I read. I also found it very interesting that last week two different ultimatums were reported by Ukrainian sources, then denied by Russian ones, and never followed through. This was the first, and the second was quoted in one of the BBC live feeds during the week, but I can’t find it again now.
On March 6th, 78 MPs from the Crimean Parliament voted to become part of Russia, with 8 abstaining. A referendum was scheduled for 16th March 2014, four days from today. It has been moved forward from the original dates of 25th May, then 30th March.
The council of Sevastopol, a city which has a special administrative status and is not officially part of Crimea, also voted to become part of Russia, and the people of Sevastopol will be able to vote in the referendum too.
The questions will be presented in three languages: Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean Tatar. Voters will be asked to choose between becoming a federal state of Russia or remaining as part of Ukraine but with greater autonomy.
It has been widely condemned as being illegal for various reasons, not least of which is the military occupation of the peninsula. This article clearly explains why what Russia appears to have done in the run-up to the referendum is illegal.
Regardless of how the outside world has reacted, it looks like the referendum will still take place. It’s undeniable that the people of Crimea need to be given the chance to decide on their own fate, rather than having it decided by politicians and then having to suffer the consequences.
Will it be fair?
As far as I’m concerned, there are a lot of issues with the referendum.
The speed at which it has been planned.
Although I doubt it will change anyone’s minds, there should be an appropriate period in which people can be informed about the benefits and drawbacks of both choices they could make in the referendum. This is what has been happening in the UK in the the run-up to the Scottish referendum.
The fact that the decision has been made before the people have voted.
The Crimean Parliament started off by declaring that Crimea is now part of Russia, then set the date for the referendum. As John Simpson reports, the referendum may make no difference at all.
The way the world has reacted to it.
There has been outright condemnation of the referendum, with no offer of another date/time/strategy for Crimeans to decide their own fate. By saying ‘no’ but providing no alternative, it is difficult for people to back out of. Perhaps if the Ukrainian government had offered more support for the idea of a referendum they would be more respected here. (entirely my own impression, and not something I’ve discussed with anyone else)
Whether it will be overseen by international observers.
If neutral observers are allowed to observe the referendum, then it will be clear whether the vote really reflects the will of the people, or whether they are being forced to vote one way or the other on the day. There is also the question of ballot-rigging, and whether there will be a fair count of the votes cast.
What will happen when the result is declared.
If the result clearly shows that Crimeans want to be part of Russia, it will be a lot harder for the West to deny them that chance. If the result goes against Russia, how can the West draw back from its statements about the illegality of the vote? What will Russia do?
Russia or Ukraine?
The outcome of the referendum is really not clear, but the more people I talk to and the more propaganda I see (it’s difficult to call it anything else when Ukraine is not represented on the billboards at all), the more likely I think it is that the vote will go in Russia’s favour.
I’ve noticed a clear generational divide, with only one or two exceptions, between those who want Russia (mostly over 35/40) and those who would prefer autonomy within Ukraine (younger, under 35, maybe under 30). The BBC and the New York Times have both interviewed people across the peninsula, and it’s obvious that opinion is divided. I think it’s also visible in the photos and videos of those at pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian rallies, where the average age looks considerably higher at pro-Russian rallies.
If that’s really true, it would make the voting pool much more pro-Russian, because the older age-group outnumbers the younger, and many young people are also off studying or working in other places, or have decided to leave Crimea because they anticipate a Russian victory. I have students who have left temporarily, others who are considering leaving permanently, and still others who have sent away family members just in case. Two students are related to notaries, and they said that the number of people getting notarised permission for one parent to take children out of the country alone has increased dramatically over the last few weeks.
What complicates the outcome further is that Crimean Tatars do not want to participate and some pro-Ukrainians are also planning to abstain because of the ‘illegality’ of the referendum, which will obviously sway the final results.
I really have no idea which country I’ll be ‘officially’ living in this time next week, and how much a potential change to becoming part of Russia will actually affect me, the people I work with, the school, and the city.
I decided to come back to Sevastopol, rather than stay in Kiev. I am now registered with the FCO Overseas Crisis Service, at the suggestion of someone at the British Embassy. I don’t really think it will be necessary, but better to be safe than sorry. As I’ve said before and will say again, I would never willingly put myself in a dangerous situation.
It’s now just a question of wait and see…