Confidence, trepidation ahead of Crimea referendum

Published 9:40 am Thursday, March 13, 2014

SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE — Men hawk Russian tricolor flags to drivers at traffic lights on the streets of the Crimean capital. Mini-vans emblazoned with election slogans belt out patriotic songs. A World War II bunker has become a drop-off point for people to donate blankets and canned food for armed militiamen who patrol the streets.

One of the two TV stations allowed to broadcast in Crimea these days makes no secret of its allegiances: It stuffs the airwaves with clips that display the slogan “March 16: Together with Russia” while blaring the Russian national anthem. They promise higher pensions, higher salaries and a better quality of life — within Russia’sembrace.

Days before the Black Sea peninsula votes in a referendum on joining Russia, Crimea has slipped into a twilight of nationalist fervor, uncertainty and trepidation.

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For ethnic Russians, Sunday’s vote has been long coming, a chance to right what they see as a historic wrong. For the ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars who are the minority in Crimea, it is fear that dominates. They fear separation from Ukraine; they fear the loss of an identity that has always been vulnerable in Russian-dominated Crimea; and they fear outright attack from thugs who run around unchecked by the Kremlin-planted regional government.

In Crimea, momentum is clearly on the pro-Russian side.

Pamphlets and fliers urging a “Yes” in Sunday’s referendum circulated briskly on the streets of Simferopol and the historic naval city of Sevastopol. “As a part of a mighty multinational country our culture and traditions will be protected,” one read.

“We’re ready to vote for (unification with) Russia,” said Svetlana Alexandrova, a 72-year-old retired translator. “Crimea is Russian and this vote is just bringing us home again.”

In Sevastopol, which is home to both the Russian and the Ukrainian Black Sea fleets, people sneered at Western reporters, saying the West was spreading lies and supporting “fascism” in the new government in Kiev. Interviews with people walking around the city center revealed overwhelming support for uniting with Russia.

The ethnic Ukrainian concerns about violence seem justified by reports of sporadic beatings, nighttime abductions and the beefed-up presence of Russian ultranationalists.

Vyacheslav Tymchuk, a 23-year-old pro-Ukrainian activist, said that he came across a group of about 10 men, some masked wearing camouflage and carrying automatic weapons, pistols and knives, brutally beating two Ukrainian soldiers in the middle of Simferopol.

When he tried to stop the attack, he said, the men beat him up, pistol-whipping him and kicking him as he lay on the ground until he nearly lost consciousness.

“They didn’t even bother to ask me who I was,” said Tymchuck, whose right eye was swollen shut and whose head and body were covered in cuts and bruises. “They said nothing to me.”