No place for pro-Ukraine voices in Russian-held Crimea

EU concerned at pressure on critics of Moscow’s annexation of Black Sea peninsula

A woman holds a Russian flag near the monument to sunken ships as Crimeans celebrated the first anniversary of the referendum on Monday in Sevastopol, Crimea. Photograph: Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images

A woman holds a Russian flag near the monument to sunken ships as Crimeans celebrated the first anniversary of the referendum on Monday in Sevastopol, Crimea. Photograph: Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images

 

After being arrested and tried last week for organising a march to honour Ukraine’s national poet, history teacher Leonid Kuzmin looked forward to going back to work and getting on with life in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea.

But worse was to come.

“I went into school and the head teacher asked me to resign. I refused, so they sacked me for ‘inappropriate behaviour’,” Kuzmin recalls.

“They accused me of being an agent of the US state department and of paying people to attend the march. A few colleagues supported me, but most called me a troublemaker and said I got what I deserved.”

Few people in Crimea who oppose Russia’s annexation of the peninsula last year show their feelings as boldly as Kuzmin, in fear of the kind of treatment he received for holding a rally to remember Ukrainian bard Taras Shevchenko.

Kuzmin (25) was one of three people ordered to perform community service for breaking Russia’s law on mass meetings, in a trial he calls a “farce”.

He says the judge could not explain how he had broken the law but suggested the marchers’ Ukrainian flags were “extremist symbols”; they are not legally designated as such, however, and the only prosecution witnesses were policemen.

Ordeal

The mild-mannered Kuzmin is now jobless and marked out as a pro-Ukraine provocateur by local authorities, but his ordeal also earned him the respect of some fellow Crimeans: strangers discreetly stop him in the street to express support, he says, and a waiter in a Simferopol cafe recognises him immediately.

“What they did to you is crazy,” the young man tells him quietly. “Good luck, keep going.”

Crimea is marking the first anniversary of what Russia calls its glorious “return home” with parades, concerts and fireworks, and the region’s prevailing mood is satisfaction at having left a Ukraine that is beset by crises on several fronts.

For many of the ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars who together comprise one-third of the Black Sea peninsula’s 2.4 million population, however, the celebrations only deepen the despair of falling under Kremlin rule.

“Pensioners and some state workers get more money than they did and many – probably most – people in Crimea are happy to be with Russia,” says Kuzmin.

“But quite a lot still support Ukraine, though they are passive. We held our rally to show that Ukrainians still live here, and we’ll defend our rights and views.”

About 50 people attended Kuzmin’s march, and only three times that number came out in Simferopol to back last year’s pro-western “Maidan” revolution, at a time when tens and hundreds of thousands were massing in other Ukrainian cities.

Even more than eastern regions of Ukraine where government forces are now battling Moscow-backed separatists, Crimea maintained close ties with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Nostalgia

Pro-Kremlin parties dominated Crimea’s political scene, nostalgia for Soviet times stayed strong and Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet retained its base on the peninsula, which has a glorious place in Russian military and religious history.

Even Crimeans who support Ukraine criticise its post-Soviet leaders for failing to integrate the peninsula more deeply into the country or foster stronger Ukrainian patriotism among its people.

“People in Crimea had no understanding of Maidan, and believed the Russian propaganda that it involved only fascists, drug addicts and unemployed people who were paid to protest,” says Kuzmin.

“They were upset when three riot police officers from Crimea were killed in Kiev, and really believed that trainloads of fascists were coming here to kill them.”

The opposition of Ukrainian and Tatar communities to Crimea’s unification with Russia gives the lie to Moscow’s claim that 97 per cent of voters backed the move on turnout of 83 per cent, but today there is no political party or major civil society group here to represent opponents of annexation.

“People don’t talk about politics in public,” says Kuzmin.

“They only speak openly at home, at the kitchen table, like in Soviet times.”

Several pro-Ukraine activists have been abducted in the past year, at least one has been killed, and critics of Crimea’s new leaders and status complain of growing harassment and danger.

The European Union this week expressed “deep concern at the . . . deterioration of the human rights situation in the Crimean peninsula, including the denial of free speech and the persecution of persons belonging to minorities”.

Ella Kizilova, a translator born in Russia who moved to Crimea as a child, says Russia’s critics in the region converse online but are too scared to meet openly.

She refuses to join the vast majority of the peninsula’s residents in taking a Russian passport, even though her decision causes her a host of difficulties, including barring her from using Crimea’s public health system.

“My mother and I worked in state administration in Ukraine, and had absolutely no problems,” says Kizilova.

“Now I have lots of problems because I don’t want a Russian passport. I am treated like a foreigner, or non-person. But I don’t regret my decision at all.”

She says Moscow has failed to fulfil promises to boost wages across the board and improve infrastructure in Crimea. The sanctions-hit economy is now ailing, she warns, with the vital tourist industry now entirely dependent on Russian visitors.

Referendum

Kizilova (40) also questioned whether most people really supported annexation at a referendum held under the gaze of Russian troops.

“There was an occupation by thousands of gunmen. How can we know who voted, or how? Did Russian soldiers and militia members vote?”

Kizilova has just returned with her son, Artyom (7), from the Ukrainian mainland. They were stuck for 15 hours at the “border” coming back to Crimea – an ordeal that can last for more than 20 hours.

“In some ways the experience of this year has been very positive, and made me realise what Ukraine means to me,” she says.

“Russians can have no money or life, but be happy thinking they belong to a great, powerful state. Ukrainians are not like that – we value our personal freedom.”

 

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