As Russia's grip closes on Crimea, non-Russians plan their exits

With Russian troops on the ground and ethnic Russians dominating the voter rolls, Ukrainians and Tatars in Crimea are already acting to escape the peninsula's likely Russian future.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
People wearing Russian flags walk at the Crimean port of Sevastopol Friday. With little doubt over the likely pro-Russian result of Sunday's referendum, many non-Russian Crimeans are preparing contingency plans.

Yulia Yavorskaya is a third-generation Ukrainian, was born in Crimea, and planned to raise future generations here.

But today, Ms. Yavorskaya is packing up her two-story dream home on the outskirts of the Crimean regional capital and selling off what cars, motorcycles, and other personal property she and her husband can. With the money they make, Yavorskaya and her family will try to make a new start somewhere on the Ukrainian mainland. 

“It’s like we are waiting out in this horrible situation, and we just wish the worst would be over with,” she said. “What we will do further, how we will work, I have no idea.”

On Sunday, Crimeans will vote on a referendum that asks if the Black Sea peninsula should be annexed by Russia or become an autonomous region independent of Ukraine.

But with ethnic Russians making up the majority of Crimea's residents and Russian troops already on the peninsula, the region's Russian future seems assured – and families like Yavorskaya's are preparing to get out before their fears of isolation, economic stagnation, and perhaps even ethnic repression are realized.

From tourist destination to 'military zone'

Four months ago, this was a peaceful tourist destination of about 2 million people, including Russians, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and other smaller minorities.

The region is mainly Russian speaking, and about 60 percent of the population consider themselves to be ethnic Russians. About 12 percent are ethnic Crimean Tatars, a Muslim, Turkic people. Another 24 percent claim Ukrainian ethnicity, with the rest, like Yavorskaya, claiming to be a mix of Slavic, Jewish, and German heritage dating back centuries.

Things started getting tense here a few weeks ago, when Russian troops arrived on the peninsula and surrounded Ukrainian military bases. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry now estimates that there are as many as 20,000 Russian soldiers occupying the Crimea.  While Russian President Vladimir Putin denies they are Russian soldiers, he claims to reserve the right to send troops to Crimea to “protect Russian speakers” from a fascist coup d’état that is now running Ukraine’s central government in Kiev.

The appearance of the Russian soldiers was followed by so-called “self defense” teams of pro-Russia supporters, who in the last few days have beaten Ukrainian journalists, threatened and harassed Western ones, and denied entry to observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Checkpoints along the peninsula’s roads have been set up to defend the Crimea from alleged Western Ukrainian “fascists.”

Anxieties within the Crimean Tatar population, which was deported from the peninsula in 1944 by Josef Stalin, are particularly high after many families in Simferopol’s Tatar districts reported finding their houses marked with an X. The same mark was used in 1944 to identify Tatar family homes before they were packed into cattle cars and sent to Uzbekistan, accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany during World War II. Many Tatars repatriated to Crimea shortly after the break up of the Soviet Union.

“There were absolutely no problems between us three months ago here. We all lived normally together, everybody just trying to make a living,” says Victoria Kiselova, a music teacher for the coastal town of Koktebel. “Now it’s like a military zone.”

Fleeing Crimea

Many Tatar and Ukrainian families are choosing to leave the peninsula ahead of the referendum. 

On Wednesday, Yavorskaya packed up her 13-year-old son’s belongings, gathered his school records, and drove him the 550 miles to Kiev to stay with a family she found on a Facebook page called “Transporting Children from Crimea.” The page links Crimean families with other families across Ukraine willing to help those looking to leave Crimea. The page started on March 9 and now has more than 800 members.

“At the moment we have finished with hosting about 20 families, and we have about 130 requests for hosting all over Ukraine,” said the page’s founder, Anna Sandalova, in a message on Facebook. Western Ukrainian families who have volunteered to be hosts for Crimean families “even try to speak Russian language with Crimeans so they feel comfortable.”

While no official number of how many families have left Crimea as a result of the conflict, the Facebook page is one of a growing network of websites and telephone numbers created to assist those looking for permanent or temporary homes elsewhere in Ukraine.

After dropping her son off in Kiev Wednesday night, Yavorskaya turned around and drove the 550 miles back to Simferopol. Two days later, she is still exhausted and bleary eyed. “The closer it gets to Sunday, the more worried I get.”

She knows her son is in good hands in Kiev, where there are other Crimean children he knows staying with nearby families. Today, only 10 out of 23 students in her son’s seventh grade class have stayed in Crimea, Yavorskaya says.

Bleak future?

She and her husband are now focused on what to do with their property here. Having put their life savings into building their home on the 10-acre property they bought three years ago, leaving it behind breaks her heart.

Yavorskaya and her family won’t be voting in the referendum, which she says is illegal, having been forced on the people by an illegitimate, pro-Russia regional parliament being controlled by the Kremlin. And even if they were to vote, it wouldn’t matter, she says, because the current Crimean prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, has already decided the outcome, and Crimea will soon belong to Russia.

Yavorskaya and other ethnic Ukrainian families are against joining Russia and are worried about possible violent conflicts that might erupt after the vote. Worse, they are worried that the peninsula will become an isolated Russian protectorate with no economic prospects.

She has no hope that being annexed by Russia will bring anything positive. Crimea is dependent on mainland Ukraine for electricity, water, and gas. Russia would need to invest billions in the peninsula for it to be sustainable without the rest of Ukraine – or Russia would need to annex a large part of southwestern Ukraine along with the Crimea, she says.

“Russia is not in the economic situation to do this kind of investing, and that means we are going to end up like South Ossetia or Abkhazia,” Yavorskaya says, referring to the small enclaves in former Soviet Georgia. Russia sent troops into those regions in 2008, saying they would protect Russian speakers and citizens living there. But those regions are now seeing a lack of economic development, which has led to deteriorating living standards and isolation.

For Tatars like Riana Teifukova, assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin that Crimea Tatars have nothing to fear from Russian annexation bring no relief. 

“I can’t trust a man who says there are no Russian soldiers in Crimea, when clearly we can see that there are,” Ms. Teifukova says.

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