Exodus on eve of a referendum with only one answer
Published in The Mail on Sunday (16th March, 2014)
Sweating in the spring sun, it took Sergei several trips to load all his bags and belongings on to the huge blue and white train. His wife Liubov tried to calm one of their young children who was screaming, while a second child stood watching beside their small dog.
Finally, Sergei folded up a pushchair and with a quick glance towards a gang of pro-Russian militia in red armbands, boarded for Kiev. ‘When guns are pointed at you and your family, it does not feel wise to stay,’ said the hotel manager from Sudak, on the Crimean coast.
The family is fleeing the region following the Russian invasion and anticipated annexation, fearful of the future and potential for conflict. ‘We are being forced to become Russians,’ said Sergei, 40. ‘I worry for Crimea – there will be nothing here.’
He is not alone. With flights cancelled to everywhere except Moscow, the railway station has seen scores of these sad scenes in recent days as men send their families to safety.
On Friday, I found oil company executive Vasyl waving off his wife and two children for the long trip across Ukraine to Lviv. ‘I wish I was not standing here,’ he said. ‘I have lived in Crimea for ten years and we have never had any problems. But now my children are being abused and I don’t like it.’
He spoke in Ukrainian – unusual these days on Simferopol’s streets, since such speakers say they are being threatened. So when would his family be returning? ‘If Crimea goes to Russia they will not come back,’ he said. ‘And I will have to go also.’
Indeed, even as Vasyl’s family boarded the train, a vast new Russian flag was being unfurled in front of the supposedly independent Crimean parliament ahead of the ballot.
Although the voting paper contains two questions, it does not offer Crimeans the option to remain Ukrainian but asks them to choose from one of two other options.
Firstly, it asks: ‘Do you support joining Crimea with the Russian Federation as a subject of Russia?’ And secondly: ‘Do you support restoration of the 1992 Crimea Constitution, and Crimea’s status as part of Ukraine?’
The wording is clever since the 1992 constitution originally sought by all pro-Russian militants stated that Crimea is independent and not part of Ukraine.
A reference to autonomy within Ukraine was inserted later at the behest of Kiev. So supporting option two is actually backing enhanced independence and the puppet government that would ensure this is under Russia.
‘I will not vote – there is no point,’ said Mikhail Melnikov, a 28-year-old charity worker. ‘The only people who will bother are those who want to join Russia.’
Many in the Ukrainian minority that makes up almost a quarter of Crimea’s population say they will leave.
‘Yesterday, a woman who works for me called and said she could not come to work,’ said Oleg, the owner of a thriving agricultural business. ‘She had left and gone to Donetsk with her two children.’
Now Oleg, who spent three years of his life fighting for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, says he will follow suit. ‘They have poisoned this place for us,’ he told me, as his two daughters arrived home from school.
‘Of course it would be very difficult to leave because we have a business, money in the bank, a nice home – but we will leave if the Russians take over even if we lose everything.’
Like many in Crimea, he has strong ties of family and friendship that cross borders. ‘But these are not the Russians we love – they are occupants of our country,’ he said.
Galina Kiselyova, a 46-year-old paediatrician and mother-of-four, said she knew 15 families planning to leave. She has seen critics of Russia assaulted in the street and has been harassed at home by gangs of youths seeking her teenage daughter, a political activist.
‘I work with 200 children with HIV and it will be very hard to leave them,’ she said. ‘But if Crimea joins Russia, the only ones who will stay are those without the money to leave.
Even among ethnic Russians, there are some who do not want to join Russia. Andrey Yegorov was born in the Russian Urals yet joined a pro-Ukrainian demonstration last week. ‘I want Crimea to remain with Ukraine,’ he said. ‘No one is thinking about the repercussions. We are all afraid of war.’
Bizarrely, I have discovered that Moscow is carrying out market research into its incursion – which must surely be a first in the annals of invasion.
Meanwhile all sides in Crimea are trying hard to avoid rash actions that could spark bloodshed but many Tartars – a Muslim minority deported by Stalin 70 years ago – are terrified by life under Russia.
And the biggest concerns are over the roving bands of samoobrona – pro-Russian militia – – that sprung up after the invasion.
I spoke to the commander of one unit of 15 samoobrona standing outside the Ministry of Finance. A builder by trade, Igor admitted he had received no training and said the force – just three weeks old – was already 2,500-strong in Simferopol alone.
He claimed to be guarding the city against ‘fascists’ and ‘provocateurs’ – and said that they would stay as long as they were needed. ‘Little boys have come up to thank us for keeping them safe,’ he added with a smile.
But as he talked, an elderly woman in a woolly hat and stained coat approached us.‘Who are you protecting us from?’ she asked, ignoring his attempts to push her away. ‘I don’t see any of these provocations you all talk about.’
There are none, of course, but it is almost certainly too late. Vladimir Putin and his stooges are finalising their seizure of Crimea today and there seems little that Ukraine or its Western allies are able or willing to do to stop it.