In Crimea, rifts widen as referendum looms
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now that an 11th-hour diplomatic effort between the U.S. and Russia failed to produce a breakthrough, the fate of the Ukrainian region of Crimea hangs in the balance of Sunday’s referendum vote.
MARGARET WARNER: Oleg Kobernik is going door to door in the small Crimean town of Jankoi urging his fellow Ukrainians to go out and vote Sunday to once again become part of Russia.
He shows them a sample ballot on how they should vote. Their choice appears to be essentially between voting to join Russia immediately or to declare independence from Ukraine as a prelude to that. Kobernik volunteered for the new so-called self-defense forces after protests in Kiev ousted Russian-backed President Yanukovych and installed a Western-backed government. He likens the current political struggle to the bloody battle over Ukraine 70 years ago between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
OLEG KOBERNIK (through interpreter): We also remember World War II and how our grandfathers fought the Nazis. And now we find this merging forthright. As soon as I heard about the coup Kiev, we went to guard the Lenin statue downtown.
MARGARET WARNER: The weight of history and its loaded language hangs over Sunday’s vote about Crimea’s future.
For centuries, Crimea was part of Russia, until the Soviets transferred it to their Ukrainian republic in the ’50s, and Crimea remained part of Ukraine after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The peninsula still hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet and voters like Svetlana Kalinina insist, a majority of Ukrainian citizens here want to be Russian citizens again.
SVETLANA KALININA (through interpreter): We have been waiting for this a long time. We felt oppressed for years. While we lived in poverty, the money Crimeans were making went straight to Kiev.
MARGARET WARNER: Many parts of Crimea are impoverished, with high unemployment and low levels of government services and benefits.
ALEXANDR KUZEMKA (through interpreter): There are no jobs, nothing here.
MARGARET WARNER: Twenty-nine-year-old Alexandr Kuzemka has only now found steady work as a courier. He too yearns to join Russia for economic reasons.
ALEXANDR KUZEMKA (through interpreter): Salary pensions are bigger in Russia, while prices are lower. That’s why I think the majority will vote to join Russia to get any kind of safety net, any kind of stability.
MARGARET WARNER: But others loathe the idea. Ukrainian Dmitriy Sichkarenko rallied in the capital, Simferopol, today against the referendum to join Russia. A 44-year-old independent computer technician, he feels deeply Ukrainian and he looks to the West, not Moscow, for his future. The Russian model, he says, represents the past.
DMITRIY SICHKARENKO (through interpreter): You will do what the party has ordered and you receive compensation. This passive style of life derived from dozens of years in a socialist state. Modern youth wants a choice, the freedom to open up and develop themselves.
MARGARET WARNER: And you consider yourself part of that generation?
DMITRIY SICHKARENKO (through interpreter): Of course, yes.
MARGARET WARNER: He will stay home Sunday in protest of a vote he calls a farce. He says the ballot doesn’t even allow no as an option and he doubts the votes will even be counted. What’s more, he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has designs on more than Crimea.
DMITRIY SICHKARENKO (through interpreter): I don’t believe he will stop. I think this is just the beginning of his plan to unite all Slavic people, bringing back empire and unity to the Soviet countries. He won’t stop with Ukraine.
MARGARET WARNER: Also opposed to the referendum are residents of the small dusty village of Molojosni on the outskirts of the capital. It’s home to Muslim Tatars, a 15 percent minority in Crimea, whose ancestors were deported to Central Asia by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1944.
Like virtually every Tatar here, 86-year-old Abibulla Akhtemov lives in fear of falling under Russian rule again. He remembers 20 days of forced travel in a boxcar with his family, taken to a collective farm in Uzbekistan called Stalin, where three of his siblings died.
ABIBULLA AKHTEMOV (through interpreter): I am afraid. I’m so upset in watching all of this and crying. I have this fear from my childhood, and, right now, I’m afraid, too.
MARGARET WARNER: A more immediate fear drove his younger Tatar neighbors, as in many such communities, to muster in the cold late last night to guard against any attempt to attack or intimidate their village at this charged political moment.
Meanwhile, in the capital today, as some Ukrainians and Tatars have a last-ditch anti-referendum rally, a convoy of pro-Russia stalwarts drove by as if the protesters weren’t even there.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Hari Sreenivasan spoke to Margaret a short time ago.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Margaret, thanks for joining us.
So, how is the vote expected to go?
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Hari, I have learned the hard way never to predict elections, but it’s hard to imagine this vote won’t be interpreted as moving Crimea closer to Russia.
First of all, you have major blocs of people opposed to it, like the whole leadership of the Tatar community, saying they’re not even — they’re going to boycott it, so as not to give it legitimacy.
Secondly, you have the wording of the ballot, which I tried to explain in the setup piece, which essentially says either they want to join Russia right away or they want to go back to this ’92 constitution, which declares Crimea essentially independent.
And, third, I have heard from a lot of young people who are pro-Ukrainian a great sense of futility. A couple we met on the train said, you know, they’re just going to move to Western Ukraine. And one woman — the woman said, you know, we don’t feel the decision is going to be made by us. And the man said, whatever Russia wants, Russia just takes. The decision has already been made.
So, in terms of voter motivation, I would say the energy is on the side of the pro-Russia supporters.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so are there signs of a campaign? What does it look like on the streets?
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Hari, not as Americans would consider a campaign.
First of all, this is a peninsula under Russian occupation. Now, you don’t see Russian soldiers in uniform out in the streets here. Instead, they have got this Cossack paramilitary unit and they have got these local self-defense forces.
And the Russian troops are out encircling Ukrainian bases. But, still, it is not a free atmosphere. Secondly, there’s no real debate. For instance, on television, you haven’t had televised debates at all. Most of the TV is blatantly pro-Russian, though there are a couple of Ukrainian channels.
And, third, there is this intimidation going on. Some Tatars in a nearby city report having X’s put on their doors by thugs. That’s exactly how the Stalin forces marked the doors of Tatars who were going to get deported. And you have had prominent activist leaders on the pro-Ukrainian side, non-Tatar, who have gone missing. And no one knows where they are.
HARI SREENIVASAN: What does this mean for ordinary Crimeans caught in the middle of this?
MARGARET WARNER: The ordinary Crimeans I have talked to say it’s very disheartening.
One woman told me tonight, all my friends used to be so optimistic about the future, and now we’re not. She said their life has been put on hold. She said, a lot of my friends are going to go ahead and move to Ukrainian. She’s only 23, so she feels Ukrainian. It’s been an independent country for 23 years.
And she said, but my boyfriend and I were going to get married. Now we don’t know what to do. We don’t know what country we’re going to belong to.
So it’s also sown, I would say, disunity or discord or mistrust among groups that never used to be. Dmitriy, the 44-year-old I.T. guy in our piece, said, our friends, we never used to argue about politics, and now we do.
And the Tatars are very nervous about, as one woman said to me today, we don’t know what Putin is putting in their heads.
So, I would say there’s a lot of unease, even among pro-Russian people here, about what the future holds.
HARI SREENIVASAN: The U.S. secretary of state has been pushing back on Russia to back off of Crimea. Certain E.U. nations have been threatening sanctions. How do the Crimeans there perceive these efforts?
MARGARET WARNER: Hari, I have to say they think they fall woefully short.
And, in fact, Crimeans who are, I mean, pro-Ukraine feel betrayed. And what they are talking about is, in 1994, when Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons, which it had as part of the Soviet Union, there was this so-called Budapest memorandum signed in which the U.S. and Britain and Russia agreed with Ukraine that they would act to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and security.
So, when I went to the American Embassy the other day, there was a demonstration out front, a man with a bullhorn shouting, you promised to protect us. And now it’s time for you to deliver.
Now, American and other European diplomats say, well, a Budapest memorandum is not an agreement. It’s not a treaty. It’s not binding under international law. And, essentially, they’re saying, we’re not — we’re going to do a lot diplomatically, but not militarily.
And that answer doesn’t sit well with the pro-Ukrainian voters we have talked to. And one Tatar said to me today, well, America may say it’s not binding, but I hope they know that if Putin isn’t stopped with Crimea, he’s going to keep going and he’s going to be moving their way and toward other countries.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Margaret Warner, thanks so much for joining us.
MARGARET WARNER: Look forward to talking to you this weekend, Hari.