Crimea on edge as referendum nears

Crimean capital riven by rival protests ahead of a referendum to join Russia, while Tatar minority fears discrimination.

    Crimea on edge as referendum nears
    Pro-Ukraine demonstrators in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, which has also seen pro-Russian marches [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

    Simferopol, Ukraine - Deep divisions across the capital of Crimea were on display on Saturday, as hundreds participated in opposing protests ahead of a referendum on whether the region, in Ukraine's southeastern peninsula, should join Russia.

    Tensions rose when pro-Russia supporters chanted "Russia! Russia!" as they marched past pro-Ukrainian protesters in the centre of Simferopol.

    At a city square where a statue of Lenin stands, dozens of pro-Russian supporters waving the Crimean flag gathered in front of parliament, some wearing army fatigues and one wearing the Russian flag over his shoulders.

    Crimea prepares for vote on secession

    Pro-Ukraine demonstrators marched to a military building, waving the Ukrainian flag and thanking Ukrainian soldiers for refusing to flee. 

    One soldier standing on guard was given flowers as the crowd cheered and then sang the national anthem.

    Valentina Kiceleva, who was at the pro-Ukraine demonstration, said she wanted her country to stay intact: "We have to fight Putin because we don't want…Crimea to stay with Russia," she said. 

    "We live very well, our life is OK… our lifestyle is at a good level. Why have his people come here? We don't understand."

    She believes the opposing protesters are not from Simferopol but are either from a more heavily Russian-populated city, or directly from Russia.

    However, it is a common sight to see people wearing pro-Russian ribbons in the city's streets.

    Maria, 17, who attended the pro-Russia rally on Sunday, believes Ukraine is now led by fascists and wants her region to join Russia.  

    "We want to live in Russia... Crimea is Russia," she said. "Russian soldiers... are our security."

    Artem, another Russian supporter in Simferopol, wants Crimea to join the country and opposes Ukraine becoming part of the European Union.

    "We like Russia… because [they're] our brothers," he said, adding that, while he was born in Simferopol and his passport is Ukrainian, he sees his national identity as Russian.

    Fresh confrontations

    On March 8, Reuters reported that Russian forces took control of a defence post and warning shots were fired to prevent unarmed international military observers from entering Crimea.

    It is dangerous… Putin will find it difficult to back down because he will then lose credibility.

    - Taras Kuzio, University of Alberta

    Also on March 8, the Associated Press reported that Russia appeared to be undertaking one of the largest movements of its forces since entering the Crimea.

    No one has died from Russia's intervention in Crimea. However, Taras Kuzio, a Ukraine expert at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, believes the potential for escalation remains:

    "It is dangerous… Putin will find it difficult to back down because he will then lose credibility."

    According to Kuzio, the Russian leader strategised poorly, believing that eastern Ukraine would welcome Russian forces more enthusiastically than has been the case. Now, the Ukraine expert says, Putin cannot back down because his supporters will see him as weak.

    "Ten years ago he also felt humiliated during the Orange Revolution and now, for a second time, he's being humiliated for backing [former Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovich by a second revolution, so for Putin [it] became very personal."

    On Thursday, a large majority of the Crimean parliament voted to join Russia - a vote which goes to a referendum on March 16.

    But Kuzio believes the vote lacks legitimacy and will not be internationally recognised.

    "You cannot have a democratic will of the people shown in the referendum if it's organised under Russian military occupation… It will be a sham referendum."

    Fear of Russian intervention

    Tatar houses in Bakhchysarai [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

    In the town of Bakhchysarai, where many members of the mostly Muslim Tatar minority live, self-defence patrols have been organised around the clock.

    Standing outside a mosque where volunteers were signing up for the patrols, 26-year-old Arsen said he felt it was important to participate.

    "I want my friends and relatives to be safe. Of course there is a certain amount of fear," he said, adding that he does not even want to think about what would happen if Crimea became part of Russia. 

    Some Tatars argue that Crimea's parliament is illegitimate because the election was poorly advertised and many did not know when to vote.

    "These people in parliament are not entitled to make such decisions, they don't have the authority to do that," Arsen said.

    Tatars are resolutely against Russian intervention. Strongly suspicious of Russia, they fear a repeat of the deportations that happened under Stalin, who sent them to Uzbekistan.

    Within Crimea's two million plus population, 250,000 are Tatars, who returned to their homeland during the late 1980s, first under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and then after Ukraine became independent.

    While some Tatars say they get along well with other locals, many believe Muslims in Russia face widespread discrimination - and fear Crimea will follow suit if Russia stays in the region.

    "I know people like me in Russia are in a much worse situation and I wouldn't like my lifestyle to be interfered [with]," said 39-year-old Adil Perkov, a Muslim Tatar resident of Bakhchysarai.

    According to Perkov, this community is still made to feel like they are not equal to others.

    "There is a tradition of the Tatars who are Muslims to hang some ribbons with a prayer on the mirror in their cars. When traffic police see it, they start being pickier, they ask more questions," he said.

    "They let you understand you're second rate."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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