For many in Crimea, 'it's about time' to get closer to Russia

Crimea is bracing for a fraught referendum on whether the region should join Russia or become essentially an independent state within Ukraine.

Vadim Ghirda
Svetlana Kalisetskaya checks a voting booth at a polling station in Perevalne, Ukraine, ahead of Sunday's referendum on whether Crimea should break away from Ukraine.

Galina Patsiuk is so happy about tomorrow’s referendum vote to join the Crimean peninsula with Russia that she can hardly hold back the tears.

“It’s like a new dawn for us,” Ms. Patsiuk says, excusing her emotions as she chokes up. Standing with a small Crimean flag in her hand, Patsiuk speaks as she watches her 5-year-old daughter running around a playground next to the regional parliament building, now guarded by Russian Cossacks. “I’m so glad that we will be united again with Russia and Belarus. I’m so proud of our Cossacks and our Slavic people. I’m so happy.”

After the referendum vote on Sunday, in which voting for the status quo is not an option, the Russian-speaking population of Crimea will be safe from the cruel fascist government in Kiev, who are trying to divide Ukraine, Patsiuk adds.

“These fascists took power illegally, and now we are not safe in our own country. I don’t think they will even consider that we are also Ukrainians,” she argues, referring to an interim government that was elected late last month after mass street protests ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych and ushered in a Western-leaning interim government made up of opposition leaders.

For most in Ukraine, no matter which side they support, the path from Mr. Yanukovych's firm if unpopular grip on power just a year ago to a referendum that could put Crimea squarely in Russian hands has been breathtaking. Equally extraordinary has been the speed with which Crimea's referendum to separate from Kiev came together. But for Yanukovych's backers, mostly Russian-speaking Ukrainians who hail heavily from the east and south, the sudden shifts in power through what they saw as illegal actions have stiffened their resolve against Kiev – and in Crimea, given the referendum a momentum that has overwhelmed those less keen on fully embracing Moscow. 

Indeed, voters like Patsiuk see the new government as power-grabbers intent on imposing a neo-fascist agenda.  “None of them asked us if we agreed with this change, they just illegally took power,” she says. Now, it’s too late for those in Kiev, because there’s no turning back:  “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is my president now.”

Power base

In 2010, nearly 49 percent of Ukraine voted for Yanukovych, who has now fled to Russia. Two years later, during parliamentary elections, nearly 40 percent of the country voted in support of his political party, the Party of Regions, which won a majority in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada, or parliament. In both elections, the support base for Yanukovych and the Party of Regions lay in Ukraine’s industrialized east and south, including Crimea.

Frustration in that power base has mounted in recent months as they have watched the government they elected be replaced by the former opposition parties.

In Kiev, the Party of Regions parliamentary deputies who were voted in by mostly eastern and southern Ukraine remain in parliament, but have lost their majority. Many of them joined the opposition shortly after the interim government of acting President Oleksandr Turchynov was sworn in Feb. 22. Still others, including former Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and an estimated 75 other deputies, simply have not shown up for parliamentary sessions since the ousting of Yanukovych.

Add to that frustration the Russian media’s television news reports that the protesters are radical, neo-fascist western Ukrainians who hate Russians, and it’s easier to understand how a peaceful protest movement that started in Kiev’s central square has now spiraled into violent clashes between groups of pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine supporters in eastern Ukraine, and here in Crimea.

Playing to fears

Indeed, the Russian media, which now dominate Crimean broadcasting, have been forceful in playing to Crimeans' fears.

Broadcasters repeatedly label the protesters banderavski, a derogatory term for western Ukrainians who seek to promote Ukrainian language and culture. The term refers to supporters of Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist who is believed to have sided with Nazi Germany as Hitler’s troops invaded Eastern Europe and the western part of the former Soviet Union. While some consider Bandera’s move to have been a strategic step to fight off a Soviet regime expanding into eastern Ukraine. The Soviets, however, accused him of killing their soldiers and citizens, and collaborating with the Nazis, rendering the name Bandera synonymous over time with fascist traitor.

As the Maidan protests in Kiev grew, the term spread as Russian media created reports of bloodthirsty groups of banderavski roaming the streets of eastern and southern Ukrainian looking for Russian-speakers. The reports – which were baseless – frightened people like Patsiuk, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian.

“Yanukovych, well no one really liked him, but he and his corruption are not as bad as this fascist killers that we have in Kiev now,” Patsiuk says. “Only crazies support them.”

Watching warily in the east

But even among those in the Russian-speaking east, there is some doubt about the current divisions in the country after violent clashes have erupted in Kharkiv and Dontesk.

“In the east, there are people who supported the Party of Regions, and now are discouraged by the pro-Russia actions that have taken place there and they don’t know how to assess the situation,” says Viktor Sokolov, the vice president of the Gorshenin Institute, a think tank in Kiev. “The referendum in Crimea is also worrying them, and they don’t know which side to lean.”

When the Party of Region members campaigned three years ago, they did so on many of the promises that appealed to eastern and southern voters in regions still heavily reliant on Soviet-era industries, and, in many cases, values.  The party promised economic stability and social services, ideas that appeal to a region that looks to Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s managed democracy for its cultural and traditional references. Nostalgia for the former Soviet Union runs high.

“We have a different mentality and different culture from western Ukrainians,” says Marina Koshkina, a nurse in the eastern Luhansk region. “People from western Ukraine shouldn’t call our people uncultured. Historically, western Ukrainians were under the rule of Poland and now they have such a beautiful city as Lvov only because it was Polish culture. I don’t hate people of western Ukraine by themselves, but I’m against the intrusion of their type of behavior and their heroes.”

From the perspective of those who have supported the antigovernment protests that erupted on Maidan in late November, the difference in mentality between western and eastern and southern Ukraine is not one of culture. Instead, it’s a difference in how the two sides of the country see their role in the country’s future, says Tatiana Skorik, a project development officer at the Development Fund of Crimea, a nonprofit civil society group in Simferopol.

“Voting for some kind of Russian ‘stability’ and maintaining a Soviet mentality is what some people think this referendum is about,” she says. “But the truth is, is that they are just sitting around saying ‘give me fish, give me fish,’ when they should be saying – for the sake of the young people – ‘show me how to fish.' ’’

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