For Crimea’s residents, a difficult choice: Become Russian or leave

McClatchy Foreign StaffApril 4, 2014 

— The Russian tricolor is not yet ubiquitous in the Black Sea resort town of Yalta - made infamous by a World War II agreement that divided up the world - but many native Russian speakers give a thumbs up when they’re asked what it’s like now that it’s ruled from Moscow, not Kiev.

For everyone else, however, it’s a nightmare come true that’s forced them to choose between taking Russian citizenship and submitting to rule from Moscow, or fleeing.

Many native Ukrainian speakers, who compose at least 24 percent of Crimea’s 2 million population, are packing their bags after Crimea voted in a referendum last month to become part of Russia. But Crimean Tatars, the Muslim ethnic group that composes 14 percent and has built a thriving civil society since returning from exile when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, say they’re staying _ and they won’t accept the takeover.

The Tatars’ Mejlis, an informal assembly, voted last weekend to demand that the U.N.-defined right to self-determination apply to them, as Crimea’s indigenous people. The assembly called for “national territorial autonomy.” It’s not clear just what that means, nor how Russian leader Vladimir Putin will deal with it.

But Mustafa Dzhemilev _ who was exiled as an infant and became a legendary dissident in Soviet times and then a top political leader here after he returned to Crimea with the collapse of communism _ is not about to throw in the towel.

Dzhemilev, who’s on a U.S. tour to drum up sympathy for Tatar rights, said the Muslim minority backed the Maidan revolution in Kiev that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, because it had never been able to regain its old property under the pro-Russian local governments that had ruled Crimea since Ukraine became an independent country in 1991.

Now he’s telling reporters and think tank audiences in the United States that a second deportation for the Tatars, whom Josef Stalin forcibly expelled to Uzbekistan in 1944, is in the offing. During a closed session of the U.N. Security Council on Monday, he said Tatars had been told to obtain Russian passports this month or face being treated as foreigners, ineligible to vote or work in state institutions.

If they accept Russian citizenship, they’ll be “completely deprived of the opportunity to even discuss the status of the territory” or hold a referendum, Dzhemilev said, according to the Russian-language text of his remarks released by the Mejlis. That would be considered a call for separatism, punishable by five years in jail. Some of the local “self-defense forces” have called for a second deportation, he said.

“Thus, they will be forced to leave their homeland. Can you imagine what it’s like for the Crimean Tatars, after deportation and genocide in 1944 and after years of fighting for the right to return to their homelands?” he asked in his U.N. remarks.

Ukrainians are voting with their feet: The outflow of vehicles to the Ukrainian mainland, 6,000 to 7,000 daily, is triple the usual flow; Dzhemilev said 5,000 Tatars had also fled.

Yalta has been on the international political map since the 1945 conference at which Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill accepted Stalin’s demand that “friendly” governments be established in eastern Europe after World War II. That led to the division of the continent into a communist east and a capitalist west, which persisted until Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew the Red Army in 1989.

Today Yalta is a symbol of botched development and of the unfinished business of 1989. A giant statue of Vladimir Lenin dominates a plaza at the start of the seafront, followed by several blocks of high-end shops _ with no customers _ where there should be cafes.

All along the promenade, the shells of long-unfinished high-rise buildings block the view of the mountains, monuments to bad zoning as well as to bad taste. At the end of the coastal promenade, apartment buildings occupy what had been a park.

Leonid Yakymiv, a Ukrainian businessman, has lived in Yalta for 46 years. He owns a successful self-service restaurant in a nearby town and doesn’t want to leave Crimea, but he also doesn’t want to become a citizen of Russia.

“The last few nights, I couldn’t sleep. I don’t want a Russian passport,” he said.

His business might be in real trouble this coming season, because 70 percent of his customers come from Ukraine, and “now they won’t come.” He hires 20 students from western Ukraine every season and pays for their train tickets. “This summer, they will not come. They are afraid,” he said.

More fundamentally, Yakymiv doesn’t know what will become of his business, which he owns and had hoped to deed to his daughter, age 33. “We don’t know the Russian laws,” he said. “We know nothing of what will be.”

He could be in trouble for other reasons. Yakymiv has been one of the most active backers of the town’s sole Ukrainian school, a 15-year-old institution with 400 pupils from kindergarten to high school. And he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Maidan revolution, collecting clothes and money for the protesters and visiting the square three times.

Yakymiv’s wife of 54 years is a native-Russian speaker who identifies with Ukraine and attends the Greek Catholic church, a Byzantine rite church that views the pope in Rome as its leader. “She loves Ukraine,” he said. “I speak to her in Ukrainian. She speaks to me in Russian.”

She is deeply worried. The five Greek Catholic priests on Crimea have fled, fearing arrest or mistreatment by the new authorities, and many parishioners have followed them.

“She says that if it stays unstable, we will have to move out,” Yakymiv said. “We all feel very uncomfortable.”

But he doesn’t want to leave, and that might make him willing to become a Russian citizen. “I am not a guy to change his passport,” he said. “But if it is a situation where I might lose my business, I might have to take on another passport.”

The Tatar community, worried that the flight of Christian clergy will accelerate the departure of Ukrainians, has offered its mosques for services to the Orthodox Church, the Kiev Patriarchate, which isn’t accepted by the Moscow Patriarchate. The Kiev Patriarchate welcomed the interfaith gesture. Two of its 11 priests in Crimea have fled.

“If there is no possibility of us, our priests and parishioners, to pray in their churches, they will pray in mosques,” Archbishop Yevstratiy of the Kiev Patriarchate said in a television interview.

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Until this week, it was still possible to reach Crimea from Ukraine _ by train; all flights had been suspended, except those from Moscow. The journey from Donetzk, in eastern Ukraine, takes 17 hours, and while the second-class accommodations are adequate _ four berths to a compartment and the price a real bargain, $14 one way _ the space is overheated, there’s no ventilation, the windows don’t open and there’s no food, hardly even any roving vendors other than a man hawking dried fish. It was the same traveling from Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, to Kiev.

As of Monday, however, that route was closed to foreigners. Moscow now requires anyone visiting Crimea to have a Russian visa. Interestingly, given the growing hostile atmosphere, Ukrainians won’t need to get one. They have visa-free travel to Russia and may come and go to Crimea as they please.

Galina, who hawks tours of Yalta and the surrounding region, is a former tourist guide, and she said she was 98 years old. She wouldn’t give her last name, but she flashed a broad grin when asked about being under Russian control. “Our pensions will treble. It will be like heaven,” she said. “Russia is a good country.”

She’s in for a disappointment. The promise of vastly higher pensions was possibly the biggest inducement to elderly voters, who compose 35 percent of the Crimean population, but late in March, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, announced that it won’t take effect until the end of this year. Meanwhile, pensions will be paid in rubles, but below the official rate, and they’ll have to pay a commission to money-changers.

“People are feeling a disappointment that they were pressed so hard,” said Vladimir Kazarin, a journalism professor at Simferopol’s Russian university. “It’s one thing when there are people with guns all around. It’s another when you can sit and talk about what’s happened.”

“I spent the big part of my life here,” said Svetlana Kocherga, 59, a professor of philology at the Crimean State University in Yalta. “Now all is destroyed.” She plans to look for a new job on the mainland. “With my point of view, I can’t live under this occupying power.”

McClatchy special correspondent Olga Ivanenko contributed to this article.

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @roygutmanmcc

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