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An Eyewitness Recounts the Crimean Referendum Two Years Ago (Part 2)

"The sad experience of the Donbass, which demanded federalization but received bombardments and tanks, confirms that we took the only one right decision back then"

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

March 16 marked 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 Russian liberation movement. 

In this second of two articles written specially for RI, the author describes the fateful days leading up to the referendum on the status of Crimea that ended with an overwhelming vote to reunite with Russia.

We went to Sevastopol’s Nakhimov square in silence, without slogans, just feeling the need to support each other. Thirty, fifty thousand? I had never seen so many people on the square. It seemed that every one of the city’s 300,000 inhabitants was there. It was clear that we shouldn’t accept the Kiev coup and the new regime.

What other options did we have? Should we reunite with Donetsk and Kharkov? They were far away, and it was not clear what was happening there. Should we support the declaration of political autonomy of the peninsula? Should we accept the restoration of the 1992 Crimea Constitution that was canceled by Kiev? Should we support the declaration of Crimea State Sovereignty? Or maybe ask to become part of the Russian Federation. There was no ready answer.

Self-defense units were formed, although there was no sense of danger. With the Black Sea fleet behind them, the people were united. Who would want to fight them?  It was clear that the main thing back then was not defense but organization, the creation of a real Crimean sovereignty. We needed a leader who could initiate the process, someone people could rely on. Alexey Chaly was that person. He had proved his loyalty to Sebastopol by talking about its place in Russian history on his TV channel every day, no matter what regime was in Kiev. When the Ukrainian government controlled by Americans began to rewrite the history textbooks, trying to take away the most valuable thing we had – our historical memory - Chaly’s actions kept Sevastopol in the Russian cultural field during all these years.

Thanks to him, children studied Sevastopol history and culture. On the site of the legendary 35th battery that became famous during the defense of the city against the Nazis, a memorial was built without government help. Everyone in the city heard about him, but few people knew him until then. Chaly avoided publicity. He was elected as the ‘people’s mayor’ right on the square – a rare case when democracy in the square wasn’t a farce but became an authentic declaration of the popular will.

We watched the events in Simferopol. The balance in parliament wasn’t yet clear. Rallies of Russians and Tartar Majlis were held almost simultaneously. On February 26, two rallies collided outside the Supreme Council of the Crimea. Organizers managed to separate the two crowds, miraculously preventing a mass slugfest, but two people were killed and dozens wounded. Clubs appeared in the hands of likely provocateurs. There was no doubt that bloodshed could set off a massacre. Groups of Russians and Tartars were ready to clash. The next day Maidan participants were expected to show up in force... We couldn’t sleep that night, nerves on edge, eager for every piece of news from TV and the Internet, ready to go to Simferopol to help.

Early in the morning of February 27th unidentified commandos appeared on the news taking custody of the Parliament building and key strategic assets. The anchor assured us it was for self-defense. We heaved a sigh of relief, and I went to the headquarters of the Ukrainian fleet to see the mysterious forces myself. I asked the tall man in a commando outfit with a Kalashnikov: “Who are you”? He answered with a smile: “A military secret”. Just then, one of those old ladies who always knew everything better than anyone, whispered in my ear: “They are ours. Shh ... it's a military secret!” A family approached. A girl of 6 or 7 handed the fighter some flowers and began to take photographs with him. Suddenly I felt very happy, tears in my eyes.

Until now, we’ve been hearing from Ukrainians, Europeans and even some Russians that our referendum was illegal, that it was carried out ‘at gunpoint’, that Russian TV washed our brains. It's all nonsense. These troops had been there since the time of Catherine the Great.

It’s important to understand that the majority of the Crimean people always considered themselves as Russians. Over 90% voted to join Russia – a figure that was obvious long before the referendum. All during the years after the collapse of the USSR we dreamed and hoped for it, but reason told us that it was impossible, that the world order was immovable. When we had a unique historic opportunity to return home, we did so with enthusiasm, exaltation and elation!

As for the law: The social contract – the constitution – had regulated the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea as part of Ukraine. But a group of criminals violated the constitution, overthrew the legitimate authority and usurped control of the state. The question of Crimean self-determination automatically arose. If there is no longer a constitution, then there is no state. Under these circumstances, any area where  representative power is formed, especially an autonomous republic with a history of  sovereignty, has the right to reaffirm that status and carry out a referendum on further self-determination.

That’s legal.  The Constitution guarantees our rights and freedoms, and the parties representing the Russian majority in the country won the elections and became the guarantors of the Russian language, the preservation of historical memory and culture despite the betrayal of the elites. When a group of misfits with nationalistic views took control of Kiev, the parliament, law enforcement and the government, they made it impossible for us to retain our cultural identity.      

Maybe at the very beginning there was still a chance to rebuild the country on a federalist basis, but the usurpers in Kiev didn’t want to hear about it. The sad experience of the Donbass, which demanded federalization but received bombardments and tanks, confirms that we took the only one right decision back then.

It’s still too early to evaluate the historic referendum – our descendants will do that. But it seems to me that its legal and political aspects are not the main thing. For every nation, unity is the foundation of its existence, like the integrity of a living body. Only when you have unity can you think about nutrition, personal development and social relations. The referendum was an act of reunification, and that is its main value.

A political decision probably demanded long hours of discussions, sleepless nights and personal courage of the Russian leadership. After all, things could have been done differently. The most obvious was another Transnistria or Abkhazia, endless torments for Crimeans, with only vague prospects. Another option was to take the risk and accept the fact that if the Russian people in a Russian land want to be part of Russia, they have a right to it! Vladimir Putin chose in favor of the people's integrity. Thank you!

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