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An Eyewitness Recounts the Crimean Referendum Two Years Ago (Part 1)

"For the citizens of Sevastopol, the referendum first of all meant salvation"

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

March 16 marks the second anniversary of the Crimean referendum on independence from the Ukraine. RI commemorates the event with remarks and recollections of an eyewitness, a scientist who lives in Sevastopol. Before the February coup in the Ukraine, he spent two weeks in Kiev, personally witnessing the chaos going on there. Back home, he became active in the movement to join Russia. 

In this first of two articles written specially for RI, the author describes the atmosphere prior to the beginning of that movement. 

<figcaption>Crimeans: No to Ukrainian Nazis! Yes to Russia!</figcaption>
Crimeans: No to Ukrainian Nazis! Yes to Russia!

The Crimean status referendum is a historic event. Some people were shocked because for the first time since World War II, part of the territory of one European state became part of another without mutual government agreement. The order that for almost seventy years enabled Europe to avoid large-scale wars, was threatened. Despite its apparent well-being, the old continent is dotted with potential territorial disputes, the legacy of past wars. 

For most Russians, the events in the Crimea, as opposed to other parts of the Ukraine, generated immense spiritual enthusiasm. For the first time in many years, rather than losing land, Russia got some back. The Russian nation isn’t divided up by geopolitical machinations, but brought together.

For the citizens of Sevastopol, the referendum first of all meant salvation. Anyone who is not a Crimean can only understand this if he penetrates into the situation of that time and understands the fears, worries, dreams and hopes that we were experiencing back then. 

End of February 2014: Kiev wrapped in smoke and gunfire. Masked thugs with weapons shouting Nazi slogans in the central streets, while the government remains impotent. Suddenly, it’s all over; the president has resigned. The French and Germans guarantee that a constitutional process will take place. It’s clear that the protest wave will again bring nationalists to power, as in 2004. Goodbye to hopes for the Eurasian Union and to Russian as an official language.

After the 2013 election, the Yanukovych team cynically abandoned the people. They promised an alliance with Russia, but started negotiations for “European integration”. They swore that Russian would be an official language, but passed a caricature law that called Russian the language of national minorities – though Russian-speakers made up 70% of the population in that region.

We will fight, for a majority of Ukrainians grew up with the Russian culture, knowing our roots and our history. We remember that Kiev is the mother of Russian cities and that the people of our land called themselves Russian until the Poles named them ‘people from the outskirts’ (Ukraine). We also remember the Russian genocide in Galicia and the Great Patriotic War. And how Bandera’s people fled to America so that in the 1990s their descendants could bring back the Nazi plague under the guise of Ukrainian nationalism. The oligarchs betrayed everything to hang on to their “stuff”.

Back then, we thought there was a nation that couldn’t be brought waiting in the wings. But in the early hours of February 22nd, something strange happened. The President disappears; the militants seize government buildings; armed bandits beat deputies, set up checkpoints. Rights and freedoms no longer exist; there is no law. A man with an AK-47, a truncheon and a face mask has come to power with a Kalashnikov. There is a clumsy attempt to legitimate the coup, strongly reminiscent of the Coup of 19 Brumaire, when soldiers with bayonets chased out French representatives as Bonaparte took power.

There’s still a hope that things can get back to legality – after all, Europeans have given guarantees! – but it melts away as the process becomes irreversible with each passing hour. Then, the abolition of the law on languages, the introduction of laws not provided for in the constitution, direct statements by Nazi's in the new regime.

The Sevastopol police special forces “Berkut” returns from Kiev. We meet them with flowers and tears, as heroes. They commented on rumors that pro-Russian forces would rally around the president, or without him, in Kharkov, Donetsk, Lugansk, Odessa. Regional Councils put out declarations, but they make no difference. There’s no trust either in the president, the oligarchs, or the politicians; it’s clear they are corrupt. And even if a region refuses to recognize the coup, what's next?  The collapse of the country and civil war. We cannot allow ourselves to imagine such a nightmare.

Prior to the referendum young people were demonstrating their allegience to Russia

Up to a point, in Sevastopol we weren’t much bothered about what was happening in Kiev, even if the hyper-sensitive were having hysterics: “What’s next?” We felt sorry for the “Berkut”, the police who did their duty during the Maidan as the angry crowd threw Molotov cocktails at them, burning them alive. Sophisticated people compared the events with the ‘Egyptian Spring’, making sure they followed the same script,  speculating on what tomorrow would bring: a military dictatorship or a carousel of much more radical regimes. The Russian fleet, however, inspired calm. We believed that no matter what happened, our fleet would stand up for the city and its inhabitants.

The country had a constitution and laws, and we were sure that between these and elections we would be able to defend our rights and interests, that a fragile balance between the east and the west of the Ukraine could be maintained. But now, what rights did we have? They beat and kill police officers and conscripts. They beat and intimidate deputies, judges and journalists. Even TV channels, still relatively neutral  yesterday, called in bandits, gunmen and terrorists. This is terror with a bright nationalist color. Even if there are fake elections, no one will take us into account. We will simply lose the right to our language, culture and history. They will build a wall between us and Russia, destroying us as a nation. 

I call my friend in Kiev. He shows off saying: “We set up a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city; we inspect everyone, catch provocateurs and ‘berkuts’, take their weapons. And now we’re forming brigades that will go to the Crimea – hundreds of right sector participants in Maidan. Together with the Crimean Tatars we’ll restore order, defend it against the pro-Russian elements. We’ll be coming to you by train.” I ask him: “Who are you going to kill first, me or my wife?”

We watch as conditions are created for national and religious provocations. Everyone knows that Turkey has been backing pro-Turkish nationalists among the Crimean Tatars, with radical Wahhabi communities and training camps for youths. The threat of an international conflict hangs over the peninsula like the sword of Damocles –a fear not only for our own future but for all the people of the Crimea.

The Ukrainian authorities were encouraging all that. They saw the Crimean Tatars as counteracting the Russian majority, perhaps hoping to use them for their own purposes. It was clear long before the events described above that a massacre was possible, and they were preparing for it. In which case, the Ukraine would not be able to defend us even if it wanted to. There was only one hope - the Russian army.

An acquaintance of mine calls me from Bakhchisarai, a Crimean Tartar town: “I'm scared. I heard that soon Russians would no longer be here and now that the Maidan had won, the Crimea would become Crimean-Tatar and they  would take revenge for 1944”. I said: “If there’s turmoil, come to us. We’ll defend ourselves”.

These were the worries we had then – me, my wife, my friends, my neighbors. They were hanging thick in the air with different words, different degrees of understanding. We discussed them over the phone and at meetings. Then it seemed that our fears were exaggerated. But now, after two years, I realize how real the anti-Russian hysteria can be in the Russian city of Kiev. And from the reports from Syria we see what the radicals can make of a once prosperous country in a couple of years. 

On February 23, a usurper took over the presidential office in Kiev. The social contract that had united the country was trampled. Didn’t these idiots understand that by undermining the constitution they had destroyed the state?

To be continued

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