Dissident reports crackdown in Crimea as Russia tightens its rule

Eskender Bariev last saw his wife and two children on Jan. 22, when he left his home in Crimea to attend a business conference in Istanbul.

Bariev, a member of the ethnic minority Crimean Tatar Parliament and a human rights worker for the United Nations, sensed there would be a problem when he left that day. The Russian guards at the checkpoint that divides occupied Crimea from the rest of Ukraine detained him and two traveling companions for seven hours, locking them in their car. At the end of that ordeal, one of his friends was officially, and without previous warning, deported.

“When I returned, I was in Kiev on my way home and I heard that the Crimean prosecutor mentioned my name,” he said. “I was to be tried for crimes against Russia when I returned. I was advised not to return to Crimea.”

He gets a faraway look in his eyes as he talks about being exiled from his home, separated from his family.

“I’d been warned, as far back as in July, that I would be one of the next to be banned from Crimea,” he said. “This is the new phase in consolidating control; they are removing all voices of dissent. Sadly, there aren’t many left.”

It’s now been a year since Russian troops occupied the Black Sea peninsula in the weeks before a March 16 referendum, which appeared to indicate overwhelming support from Crimeans to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. Russia insisted about 95 percent of registered voters participated, of whom 95 percent backed the idea.

Reports since have cast doubt on those claims. Critics claim that the actual turnout was a third or fewer of registered voters. Tatar witnesses report that groups of voters went from polling station to polling station, voting multiple times. Beyond that, the referendum itself was flawed: There was no option offered of maintaining the status quo, and Ukrainian law requires regional secession to be approved by a vote of the entire nation.

Still, the Russian Duma moved quickly to annex Crimea, a move that wasn’t recognized by the United States, or most Asian, African, European, North American or South American nations. North Korea, Syria and Venezuela are among the few that have recognized the annexation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly has attempted to legitimize the land grab by claiming that he ordered his Black Sea fleet from its bases, in violation of a treaty with Ukraine, to protect the Russian-speaking and ethnic Russian population in the area. But even he acknowledges that the goal of recapturing Crimea had been formulated before the referendum. In a Russian television documentary set to air soon on the Crimean decision, Putin says that he left an all-night meeting on the morning of Feb. 23 noting that “It’s time to bring Crimea home.” That statement came the night after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had fled Ukraine for Russia in the wake of violent protests in Kiev.

International leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel make a point of saying that Crimea is still part of Ukraine. But Vadym Rabinovich, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament, remains unconvinced the international community is committed to Ukraine regaining control of Crimea. He notes the peninsula isn’t mentioned in the most recent peace accord, worked out between Ukraine and Russia, with help from Germany and France, in Minsk.

“The Western world doesn’t want conflict, so the West has mostly forgotten about Ukraine and Crimea,” he said. “Ukrainians will never accept the annexation of Crimea, but Ukrainians are sitting at the wrong table.”

Ukrainian Parliament members these days wear T-shirts proclaiming “Crimea is Ukraine.”

But on the streets around Independence Square, only small crowds turned out in early March to voice the same message. Newspapers and television newscasts covered the one-year anniversary of the occupation, but the coverage was hardly a leading item.

“We don’t find much of a public outcry about Crimea anymore,” said Ukrainian journalist Serhiy Shcherlyna, who writes for The Insider, a website that focuses on reporting of government actions. “A year ago, of course, people cared. But today, they are worried about the war in the east, and the economy. Crimea is way down the list of worries here.”

The result is that a year later, in a practical, if not a legal sense, Russia is in complete control of Crimea.

Bariev says Russian rule is absolute.

Bariev divides the occupation into different stages. Initially, it was disbelief for Tatars and others who weren’t sold on the idea of suddenly being Russian citizens. He noted that the question of joining the Russian Federation was hardly new in Crimea. It had been a regular question in opinion polling since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. He said that in recent years a fairly consistent third of the population favored the idea, while the other two-thirds opposed it. Since the Russian occupation, he said, it’s been impossible to take an accurate opinion poll, as people are afraid their answers might be used against them by the state.

After the referendum, optimism grew, he said. Russia made good on promises to increase pensions and government salaries and provided free health care. About half the Ukrainian military troops who had been based in Crimea accepted offers to join the Russian military, often at double the pay. While Crimean Tatars remained dubious based on historically poor treatment at the hands of the Soviet Union, many were willing to overlook a bad tourist season (Ukrainians didn’t show up).

There was even excitement during elections in September for both a new regional parliament and to the Russian Federal Duma.

But, he added, those elections, which strengthened Russian control, came at a time when Russian finances were beginning to dive, with the fall in oil prices.

“At that point, salaries and pensions began falling, eventually decreasing by a factor of four against the ruble, or eight against the dollar,” he said. “And that’s when the crackdown on public meeting and speech intensified. Any pro-Ukrainian sentiment was seen as anti-Russian. People were being arrested and deported more and more frequently.”

At first, businesses such as telecom services and a large regional bakery that had been privatized after the collapse of the Soviet Union were seized and again nationalized. Then businesses such as a Crimean candy maker that had been formed after the fall of the Soviet Union were seized and nationalized.

The transport of goods declined. There is no direct connection from the Russian mainland to Crimea. Existing international flights (for passengers and goods) were cut or rerouted through Moscow.

Crimean government workers and soldiers were transferred to other parts of Russia, and Russian workers and soldiers were brought in to replace them. He said the Russian FSB, the replacement for the old Soviet KGB, became more aggressive. He said officials sent provocateurs to disrupt even such middle-of-the-road events as a celebration of International Human Rights Day. An exhibit of children’s paintings was forbidden.

“Suddenly, people began to complain about the lack of freedom of speech, and to be labeled troublemakers for doing so,” he said. “Any state worker who tried to maintain ties with Ukraine, to keep their Ukrainian passport, was forced to resign.

“The reality is that there never was any violence against Russians or Russian speakers here,” said Bariev. “It was madness to claim otherwise, everyone is a Russian speaker. In the end, this was a land grab by Russia, and a power grab by those who felt they would lose power when Yanukovych fled, but might retain some under Russian rule. But even many pro-Russia people today are looking back on the time under Ukrainian rule as the good old days.”