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Crimean Tatars sit this election out, or vote under pressure

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March 16, 2014, 7:09 p.m. | Ukraine — by Lily Hyde

A man holds a poster which reads "Referendum is illegal!" during the Crimean Tatars' peaceful demonstration in Bakhchisaray on March 14.
© Anastasia Vlasova

Lily Hyde

Special to Kyiv Post

SIMEROPOL, Crimea – Crimean Tatars, the ethnic minority that makes up 12 percent of the threatened peninsula’s two million people, are not joining the Kremlin bandwagon to go and vote in the March 16 referendum on joining Russia.

The Crimean Tatar parliament, or Mejlis, has said that it is boycotting today’s referendum as illegal and, for the most part, it appears that the Crimean Tatars – whose deportations under the Soviet Union make them wary of Russian rule – are heeding this advice from their leaders.

However, pro-Kremlin officials in Crimea have been trying to get a high turnout at polling stations today, so are exerting pressure on citizens to vote – even though there is no opportunity to vote no on the ballot questions of joining Russia or gaining greater autonomy from Ukraine. Crimean officials are succeeding in getting a high turnout – by hook or by crook – with pro-Kremlin Prime Minister Serhiy Aksyonov estimating turnout at nearly 79 percent two hours before polls close at 8 p.m.

But what Kremlin and Crimean officials want the world to see as an exercise in democracy, the rest of the world is seeing as a strong-armed farce – a referendum being conducted two weeks into a Russian military occupation.

Crimean Tatars vote at a polling station in the Kamenka district of Simferopol on March 16 (Photo: Anastasia Vlasova)

One of those Crimean Tatars who have felt the pressure to vote is a hospital worker in Simferopol, a woman in her 40s. She said that a Simferopol city official came to her workplace and ordered all employees to vote for joining Russia. 

The woman didn’t want to be identified out of fear of losing her job.

“He didn’t even agitate, he said concretely that all hospital workers had to vote themselves, and had to work with patients too, so that everyone votes for Russia. The question is already decided, no discussion, and promises afterwards of free pancakes and biscuits,” the woman said.

The hospital’s goal for turnout was 100 percent, according to the city offical’s instruction, no matter the patient’s condition. “We have lots of departments – intensive care, brain injuries, but they all have to vote. There are people who’ve had strokes, how can they be in state to vote? The woman asked. “My co-workers who are Crimean Tatar really feel this pressure, and I can say we’re being forced to vote. But so far we’re sticking to our decision not to take part in the referendum. Maybe I won’t lose my job, but the attitude has really changed towards us; people are saying unpleasant things about Tatars in my hearing.”

Teachers have also been pressured into going to pro-Russian meetings, while heads of schools have been forced to submit lists of their staff who support the Russian annexation.

“I’ve personally seen a list and teachers were asked to sign that list,” says Lenore Yagyayeva, a teacher of Crimean Tatar language in Simferopol. As a Crimean Tatar, Yagyayeva says she was not asked to sign.

At one meeting ahead of last week’s 200th anniversary of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s birth, a teacher proposed that Shevchenko be taken off the curriculum and be replaced by Leo Tolstoy. None of the Ukrainian teachers spoke out in opposition, according to Yagyayeva.      

As of 6 p.m. today, predominantly Crimean Tatar towns like Bakhchisaray and Belogorsk were notably lagging behind other regions in voter turnout. At 5 p.m. in Kamenka, a largely Crimean Tatar settlement on the outskirts of Simferopol, election committee staff could not explain why there was a double polling station in one school building. Russian paramilitary flags were flying outside the polling station.

While most Crimean Tatars are strongly united in their public refusal to vote, the lack of any opposing public view to the pro-Russian juggernaut in Crimea is so striking that Russian or Ukrainians who oppose today’s referendum are nervous to speak out.

“I’m being beaten down by lies,” said a Crimean businessman who did not want to give his last name because he feared retribution. “My parents are pro-Russia. They watch Russian TV and believe it; my friends too. It’s really psychologically difficult and I don’t know I’m going to live from day to day.”

The Crimean Tatars are well aware that boycotting the referendum is unlikely to change the outcome.

“In the end, whether we go and vote or not will make no difference,” says Mustafa Mustafaev, a community leader from Bakhchisaray. “It doesn’t matter what we do because it’s all been decided in advance.”

What’s more, many Crimean Tatars say they are experiencing an increase in hostility towards them to the levels of the 1990s, when they first began to return to Crimea from exile in Central Asia and Russia in large numbers.

“The Russians here have been terrorized with stories about ‘Banderists’ (followers of Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera) from Ukraine coming to take their homes away,” said Safinar Jemilev from Bakhchisaray. “When we came back 20 years ago, they said the same about us, that Tatars will steal their homes, scare their children, slit their throats. Then people got used to us, but it’s all starting again, this propaganda.”  

But as worried as she is about losing her job, the hospital worker who refused to give her name is worried more about the future of Crimea and Ukraine.

“I’m actually not so afraid to lose my job,” she said. “I’m more afraid about the whole situation – my family, my children, our future.”

Kyiv Post staff writer Lily Hyde can be reached at lily@lilyhyde.com.

Editor’s Note: This article has been produced with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.

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