Column: In Crimea, Pro-Unity Activists Fear Future

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Simferopol, Ukraine

Suspended in the Black Sea by a narrow strip of land, Crimea — with waves lapping its shores — often seems more like an island than a peninsula. In fact, locals tend to refer to the rest of Ukraine as materik, or mainland. Instead of Ukraine’s endless plains, there are real mountains here; instead of freezing winter temperatures, there are often balmy skies. The history of the place, the temperament of the people, even the cuisine: everything is different. For those few activists still fighting for a united Ukraine here, Kiev — an hour-and-a-half flight from Crimea — can feel a million miles away.

The pro-Ukrainian rallies were never a popular affair in this predominantly Russian part of the country. Even at the height of the Euromaidan protests in Kiev in early December, when tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands marched in the streets against the government of Viktor Yanukovych, in Crimea there was only the din of a far-away battle. When there were protests here, often only a few hundred people participated. As the situation in Crimea quickly devolved, after Yanukovych’s ouster and the calls for Crimea’s secession become more strident, about 5,000 Crimean Tatars — the region’s most fervently pro-European group — blocked the local parliament building on Feb. 26 and clashed with pro-Russian supporters. But that remains the single greatest burst of Euromaidan enthusiasm to date. Afterward, fearing escalation and potential civil war, Tatar leader Refat Chubarov called on his people to stay home to avoid further provocation.

Emotional pro-Ukrainian rallies still occur in Crimea, but they are small and isolated: groups of friends and friends of friends huddling together for warmth and security. To minimize the chances of direct confrontation with the many pro-Russian militant supporters roaming the streets (often with wooden clubs sticking out of their backpacks), Crimea’s Euromaidan activists usually try to steer clear of the central urban areas. Last week, a protest in the regional capital Simferopol took place near the edge of town, in Shevchenko Park, by the bust of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet. Young professionals and the regional capital’s more educated elite, who tend to be the most pro-European, nervously waved sky-blue Tatar flags and blue-and-yellow Ukrainian ones. A few people held hand-made posters calling for peace and unity, a few chanted “Glory to Ukraine,” and “Russian soldiers, go home.” Then everyone joined in singing, several times over, the Ukrainian national anthem, their voices often drowned out by the constant roar from a nearby boulevard.

The protesters hardly numbered 200, but included a smattering of ethnic groups: Ukrainians, Russians, Tatars, Jews and Armenians. Though united in their cause, the event was a far cry from Kiev’s Maidan (central square), which brought down a president and changed the course of contemporary European history. An air of despondency and doom pervades Crimea’s pro-Ukrainian protests, which feel like the last stand of a people who know, deep inside, they have already lost.

“Our rally is small and probably could not do much, and I don’t believe things in Crimea will end well,” said Nikita Levintsov, a 25-year-old computer specialist and a Jewish native of Simferopol. “But I stand here anyway.”

These tiny gatherings of peaceful pro-Ukrainian sentiment threaten to disappear under a steadily rising tide of Russian nationalism. According to a 2001 census, about 58 percent of Crimea’s 2 million residents are ethnic Russians, while Ukrainians constitute 24 percent and Crimean Tatars 12 percent of the population.

During a weekend in early March, a pro-Russian secessionist rally numbered in the thousands of people; dozens of buses had brought in supporters to Simferopol from all over Crimea; on a stage built in the middle of the central square by the statue of Lenin, a military band, as well as famous local singers and dance troupes, entertained the audience for hours. Amid all this, the defenders of Ukrainian unity in Crimea look overwhelmed. And it seems that their efforts are for naught: Pro-Russian supporters say that they haven’t even noticed them.

“There’s no division in Crimea,” said Sergei Kuznitzov, a 45-year-old participant in one of this weekend’s secessionist rallies in Simferopol. “Everything is just fine, there are no problems.”

Yet the smell of fear is everywhere, a sinking feeling in the stomach that tells one things could go terribly wrong, terribly fast. The ever-rising number of men in army fatigues in the streets, the dark shine of automatic weapons, the deliberate military step, the fanatical sparkle in the eye: All of these portend something that nobody even wants to imagine.

Members of the Crimean demonstrations have experienced harassment and attacks, according to interviews with activists. Their faces and names have been plastered in places of prominence as “Crimean traitors.” Many pro-Ukrainian TV stations have been forced off the air. The rule of law has very nearly dissolved. The city feels increasingly run by the strong and the armed. How long the pro-Ukrainian protesters will go on unimpeded is hard to tell.

During a recent pro-Ukrainian rally, Zinaida Kalnikova, a 77-year-old resident of Simferopol and a devoted pro-unity protester, who remembered the horrors of World War II, suddenly burst into tears. “I don’t know what will happen. Blood could be spilled. I have four grandchildren, do you understand? I have decided to stay here and protest until I die.”

But options for those who don’t want to see a Russian Crimea are running out. Forces are dragging Crimea eastward, toward an uncertain future.

Dimiter Kenarov is a free-lance journalist based in Istanbul. This project is funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.