Crimea poll leaves pro-Russians celebrating

Moscow supporters say 'reunifying' will boost Ukraine's moribund economy, but others denounce 'fake vote' in Crimea.

    Crimea poll leaves pro-Russians celebrating
    A family joining celebrations in Lenin Square after the end of a referendum in Simferopol, Crimea [EPA]

    Simferopol, Ukraine - It was the ultimate election faux pas: The celebration party kicked off before the polls were even closed in Crimea's referendum.

    Voting was still open across Crimea on Sunday when a programme of singing, folk dancing and Russian rock performances began at 7pm in Simferopol's main square with a guard of Russian bikers and armed soldiers to keep the peace.

    By 11pm, the evening's host interrupted the entertainment to make an announcement: 95.5 percent of voters in Crimea wanted to become part of Russia. The audience, already numbering in the thousands, roared their approval, waved their Russian, Crimean and Soviet flags and the show went on. 

    Despite protests from Ukraine, the United States and the European Union, the Russian-backed Crimean referendum took place without the oversight of an international monitoring organisation.

    Among the pro-Russian supporters, there was a general sense that "reunifying" with Russia, as was written on the ballot, will result in an immediate pick-me-up for Ukraine's lagging economy. If nothing else, a move towards Moscow will help to make sure that the “fascists and nationalists” in control in Kiev will not eliminate the Russian culture and language from Crimea, as Russian state media has said the new Ukrainian government would do.

    More than 70 years ago, your forefathers fought against Nazism. Now we're doing the same thing.

    - Message on a video screen on the main rally stage in Simferopol

    "More than 70 years ago, your forefathers fought against Nazism," read one video screen off the main stage in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea with a population of about 330,000 people. "Now we're doing the same thing."

    Nearby, a Vladimir Ilyich Lenin statue watches over the main square. While impassioned protesters have toppled various stone, concrete and marble renditions of the Russian communist revolutionary as a sign of expelling the old political ways, Simferopol's main Lenin statue is still firmly in place.

    Soviet hold-out

    A few metres away from Lenin's statue and the video screens, an elderly couple was taking advantage of the last few minutes of sunlight, snapping photos around the centre of town.

    "I want to be proud of my country again," said Aleksandra Gymen, posing by a stand filled with Crimean flags. 

    The couple gave Ukraine a chance and they got nothing in return other than low pensions and corruption. Closer ties with Russia are the only way to keep out “fascists” in control of the government in Kiev right now, said Gymen.

    "Ukraine has disgraced itself," added Anatoly Gymen, 79. "It's time to reunite with Russia." 

    Though his nationality is Ukrainian, Gymen was born on a kolkhoz, or collective farm in Crimea, and considers himself a product of his Soviet upbringing. Under the Soviet Union, Russian was the official language in Ukraine, and schools were almost always taught in Russian as well. Gymen said he never even learned to speak Ukrainian growing up.

    If a politician in Kiev suddenly changes his mind, then "what am I supposed to do, learn another language? I'm old," he said, referencing a recently proposed law that would demote Russian as one of the official languages of Crimea.

    Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov has refused to sign the bill into law.

    Pro-Russian Crimeans celebrate in Lenin Square in Simferopol [AP]

    "As it is, I can't even read our medicine labels, they're all in Ukrainian - it's absurd," said Gymen, who also said her nationality is Russian, even though her passport is Ukrainian.

    When it came time for the couple to cast their ballot, neither even considered the option for Crimea to stay part of Ukraine with increased autonomy under Crimea's 1992 constitution. Instead, they checked the first box: reunification with Russia.

    Keeping in line

    To help maintain order during the referendum, men in unmarked uniforms with semi-automatic weapons, a group of Russian bikers called the "Night Wolves", and Cossacks complete with their iconic fuzzy hats, all stood watch around Simferopol.

    "This election is so much more quiet than one's we've had in the past," said Zhanna Niktenko, an election observer in the Fountain region of Simferopol.

    Right outside the polling station where Nitenko was working, several men wearing red armbands were on guard. The armbands all bore the phrase "Dryzhniki A.R.K." - the name of an informal group of volunteer guards for the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

    A group of armed men in military uniforms also wandered among the groups and verified journalists’ documents at will.

    Niktenko, in her 60s, said she also served as an observer for the 2004 elections. But she said voting in this referendum was going much more smoothly.

    "Now there aren't lots of parties - people are coming together behind one movement," she said. The result is a much more peaceful election.

    While Niktenko was speaking with Al Jazeera, applause suddenly broke out inside the voting area.

    Beaming, Niktenko explained the clapping was for a first-time voter, Vladimir Yanovskiy, who promptly received a congratulatory chocolate bar along with his ballot before he disappeared inside a sheeted, standing cubicle to check his box of choice.

    After the 19-year-old slipped his unfolded ballot into the box, he told Al Jazeera he cast his vote "for Russia - it is the best choice."

    Other options

    While having Crimea become part of Russia would make some Crimeans feel more secure, others feel extremely threatened by the presence of military vehicles driving around Simferopol and the armed men in fatigues.

    I'm not voting in a fake election. Why vote in a fake election?

    - 19-year-old Tatar man

    Groups of Crimean Tatars have taken to patrolling their neighbourhoods at night since the end of February when pro-Ukrainian Tatars clashed with a pro-Russian rally outside of the Crimean parliament building.

    The Tatars are an extremely well-organised, pro-Ukrainian voting bloc in Crimea who have a long and unpleasant history with Russia. The entire ethnic group was deported after World War II to Central Asia, and they were only allowed to return after the fall of the Soviet Union.

    Tatar community leader Refat Chubarov called for a boycott of Sunday's referendum saying the election wasn't legitimate. 

    "I'm not voting in a fake election," said a 19-year-old Tatar man, unwilling to give his name, who had come to look at a polling station but didn't vote. "Why vote in a fake election?" 

    Many other pro-Ukrainian Crimeans who spoke with Al Jazeera said they felt the same way. At a meeting on Saturday, EuroMaidan supporters in Crimea were encouraged not to come out in protest on Sunday so as not to tempt aggression from pro-Russian supporters.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin's promised higher pensions, better wages, more access to education, but it's all a farce, said Sevastopol EuroMaidan activist Sergey Kornikenko. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



    'We were forced out by the government soldiers'

    'We were forced out by the government soldiers'

    We dialled more than 35,000 random phone numbers to paint an accurate picture of displacement across South Sudan.

    Interactive: Plundering Cambodia's forests

    Interactive: Plundering Cambodia's forests

    Meet the man on a mission to take down Cambodia's timber tycoons and expose a rampant illegal cross-border trade.

    Pakistan's tribal areas: 'Neither faith nor union found'

    Pakistan's tribal areas: 'Neither faith nor union found'

    Residents of long-neglected northwestern tribal belt say incorporation into Pakistan has left them in a vacuum.