Thursday

29th Jun 2017

Feature

Crimeans seek stable life under Russian control

  • On a painted wall in Sevastopol, Russian president Vladimir Putin builds a new Crimea, under Russian colours. (Photo: Loreline Merelle)

On a cloudy afternoon in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, two girls are shyly dropping off yellow flowers at a statue of an armed soldier with no label on his uniform. The figures depict the man being greeted by a little girl and a cat is rubbing against his legs.

The statue represents one of the "little green men" or "polite people" – the unmarked Russian special forces. They had taken over the Peninsula in February 2014, before it was annexed away from Ukraine with a referendum that was not recognised by the international community.

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  • The statue of a Russian "little green man" in Simferopol. (Photo: Loreline Merelle)

Three years later, the "little green men" are everywhere in Crimea – on posters and painted on walls. They can often be seen next to portraits of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Whilst looking at one of these walls in Sevastopol, Anna (not her real name, to remain anonymous) told EUobserver that the Russian troops had come to Crimea "only for peace".

Thanks to them, "at least there is no war here", she said, referring to the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine. She added that she prefers to live in peace than to speak about politics.

Like many people in Crimea, this student of one of the Russian universities in Sevastopol seems to be happy to speak and write only in Russian, to carry a Russian passport, which has become almost mandatory, or to use the Russian +7 dialling code instead of the Ukrainian one.

For them, the increase in prices that happened after the annexation of Crimea and the various sanctions imposed by the EU and the US are less important than being part of Russia.

For years, while being Ukrainians, many watched Russian channels and refused to speak Ukrainian in their daily lives.

Now it's the turn of Ukrainians to try to keep their culture and language.

“Russia is trying to perform a cultural assimilation”, Leonid Kouzmine, the head of Simferopol's Ukrainian cultural centre, told EUobserver.

Kouzmine, who demonstrated against Russia's annexation in 2014, has already been arrested several times by Simferopol's local authorities.

He said that authorities put in place by Russia closed two Ukrainians universities in Crimea and made it more difficult, or even impossible, to learn Ukrainian at school.

Culture ban

Public cultural events in Ukrainian are often banned, as well as putting flowers on the statue of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Simferopol.

In the city of Yalta, the Lesya Ukrainka museum was under construction when the Russians first arrived, but was then closed in 2016.

This museum was intended to pay tribute to the famous Ukrainian writer, Lesya Ukrainka. According to Kouzmine, it has now been transformed into an exhibit for the "Friends of the Nations", to celebrate the union of all Slavic people.

Kouzmine's centre has lost its state subsidies, and now relies on private contributions. It stills organises Ukrainian lessons, but only around 70 people are registered.

“If this continues, no one will speak Ukrainian in Crimea in three or four years”, Kouzmine said.

Tatars gather every day in front of Simferopol's Court of Justice, waiting for appeal rulings for them, family or close relations.

Another minority under pressure is the Tatars.

It is not unusual to see Tatars waiting in front of Simferopol's Court of Justice for appeal rulings on administrative arrests, illegal house searches, or questionable custody conditions.

“We keep appealing, but we never win,” Luftiye Zudiyevan, who works for an association for the children of Tatar minorities, told EUobserver.

She came to the court to find out the fate of her father, who was arrested a few days before. She doesn't have much hope.

Zudiyevan explained that she can't go to the hearing, which are always organised behind closed doors. She said that her father has no right to a lawyer for his defence.

Press oppressed

Lilia Budzhurova, a Tatar journalist, denounced the same kind of violations of the right to justice.

"The police came to my place at 5am, and my lawyer wasn't allowed to be there," she said. "I brought the issue to the courthouse and lost."

"We are monitored all the time", she added, describing self-imposed rules to ensure some privacy – such as changing her computer's password every week, or keeping her mobile phone away when talking about private matters.

EUobserver met Budzhurova in the former building of ATR TV, the Tatar community's channel, in the suburbs of Simferopol.

ATR lost its broadcasting license in 2015 for "obvious political reasons," she said. Now a small team of journalists occupies only a few rooms in the building and manages a small online publication about culture.

Budzhurova said that she now only does "humanitarian and informative work", communicating with journalists and people outside Crimea to let them know what is happening on the peninsula.

She and the Tatar community are in constant communication with organisations such as SOS Crimea, a Ukrainian NGO that monitors civil rights in Crimea.

But the journalist has not lost hope for the Russian-annexed peninsula. She thinks that “a happier life is possible."

She points to the fact that only a few Tatars have left Crimea and that they still constitute 12 percent of the population. Their goal is now to remain in their native peninsula, despite the acts of repression.

Lenin's statue still adorns the square in front of Crimea's Council of Ministers building in Simferopol

“History can change. Nothing is endless,” said Nariman Dzhelalov, a former deputy chairman of the Mejlis, the parliament of Crimea's Tatar minority.

The parliament was closed by the new pro-Russian government. Since then, Dzhelalov has had no right to speak about politics and said that he is the under control of the local authorities. "They are monitored what I am doing. I think they are waiting for the moment they can arrest me" he explained.

He said that local authorities have banned opposition meetings and have put 25 to 30 Tatars in detention.

"According to the new Russian law, it has become illegal to speak against Russia," Dzhelalov told EUobserver at the Marakand, one of the main meeting places for the Tatar community in Simferopol, where people watch Euronews, the EU-funded TV channel.

He supports EU and US sanctions, which he considers as a form of support for Russia's opponents and a punishment for those who voted in favour of the annexation in 2014.

Some in the Russian community have started to blame Russia for the situation.

"We used to live in a paradise, now we live inside barriers," Ivan Petrov, the managing director of a Russian press and communications group, told EUobserver.

Petrov came to Crimea in 2012 in order to start a business. He opened a hotel in the main Tatar city in Crimea, Bakhchysarai. But now, he said, his plan is to leave Crimea for Georgia.

Speaking over a cup of coffee at the Pushkin – a cafe he owns and has named after the famous Russian poet – he denounced the high level of corruption among local authorities and the increasing political repression.

"In the past, I saw Ukrainian activists regularly – now I don't see them anymore," he said, adding that "the number of policemen has increased by four times, compared to before the annexation."

"I don't fear Russia, because I am Russian," he said, explaining that his nationality protects him from being arrested.

EU visa waiver looms for Russia-annexed Crimeans

Visa liberalisation for Ukrainians entering the EU will also apply to inhabitants of the peninsula taken over by Moscow in 2014. But the issue poses administrative as well as political problems.

Little to celebrate at EU-Ukraine summit

EU leaders have pledged to uphold sanctions on Russia in the run-up to a summit this week, but the declaration comes amid multiplying uncertainties on future ties.

West told Ukraine to abandon Crimea, document says

US moved warships out of Russia's way. Germany urged Ukraine not to fight - newly-published minutes of a Kiev crisis meeting in 2014 show how the West let Putin seize Crimea out of "fear."

EU extends sanctions on Russia

German chancellor Angela Merkel said that Russia hadn't done enough to implement the so-called Minsk peace process, a condition for lifting the sanctions.

EU extends sanctions on Russia

German chancellor Angela Merkel said that Russia hadn't done enough to implement the so-called Minsk peace process, a condition for lifting the sanctions.

Interview

EU visa waiver unlikely to import Ukraine crime

Visa-free travel, which began last week, unlikely to prompt a Ukrainian crime wave, an EU police expert has said, but Ukraine itself is seeing increases in lawlessness.

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