Kidnappings, threats and assaults of Ukrainian activists and journalists have become the norm in Crimea since the Russian military invasion of the Black Sea peninsula on Feb. 27
On March 9, while Ukraine was celebrating the 200th anniversary of poet Taras Shevchenko’s birth, two activists from the EuroMaidan Revolution -- Anatoliy Kovalsky and Andriy Shchekun -- arrived at the Simferopol train station to pick up a parcel decorated in Ukrainian blue-and-yellow.
Local pro-Kremlin militia promptly beat the two men and took them to a police station. Now they are believed to be members of the Russian Unity party, but have not been seen since.
Sevastopol activist Igor Kiriushchenko, who is helping Ukrainian soldiers at military bases, had to urgently leave Crimea on March 10 when dozens of men with white armbands from the Russian Bloc militia broke into his apartment and threatened the lives of him and his wife. “Get out of Crimea, otherwise we will kill you,” they said, Kiriushchenko reported.
On March 18, Ibraim Umerov, a journalist at ATR, a Crimean Tatar channel, was brought to a hospital with a broken knee after he and a cameraman tried to film the seizure of an auto repair shop in Simferopol by a group of masked men. The men severely beat him on the spot.
This is the everyday terror that Crimeans are facing under Russia’s control, an invasion condemned as illegal by most of the world
“This is real terror, when people are getting abducted, when armed men are walking the streets, when journalists are getting beaten,” said Sergiy Mokrushin, a Simferopol investigative journalist, adding there are as many as 10 activists missing in Crimea right now.
These cases of kidnappings and abuse are disturbingly reminiscent to those in Kyiv during the EuroMaidan Revolution that toppled Viktor Yanukovych as president on Feb. 22. Dozens of anti-government activists were reportedly taken and tortured in the three months before victory, and at least one was killed, aside from the 100 protesters and police officers shot and killed.
After the new government took power, Berkut riot police officers sought shelter in Crimea and got welcomed as local heroes and victims of what many of the peninsula’s two million residents believe was a violent, fascist takeover by nationalists in Kyiv. Many of the riot police officers can now be spotted alongside police officers on the streets and checkpoints of the peninsula.
Near the front gate of the Berkut base in Simferopol is a small tent camp adorned with the words “Crimean Front” that was set up in late February. Some 50 men who call themselves Crimean Self-Defense, a Russian-backed outfit, spend their nights guarding the barracks of the Berkut riot police officers.
“Almost all of the former Berkut police officers are now here,” Mokrushin said. “Moreover, very many “titushkas” (thugs hired by the ousted Yanukovych regime) were also brought to Kyiv from Crimea.”
These people have become the backbone of pro-Kremlin Crimean self-defense groups and often apply the brutal methods they were using towards activists in Kyiv to those here. “They like to be scot-free here, to feel their strength, when they may check people’s documents and bags wherever they want,” Mokrushin added.
The Russian military takeover has already prompted more than 500 people, including Ukrainian activists and Crimean Tatars, to seek shelter outside the peninsula in recent weeks, according to Ukrainian Border Guard Service statistics
Ukrainian border guards and their families are also being harassed by the pro-Kremlin Crimean self-defense groups, they say.
Iryna Brunova-Kalisetska, a Simferopol psychologist, said that despite the fact that pro-Russian activists in Crimea openly hate EuroMaidan in Kyiv, they have adopted some attributes of the revolution. Apart from self-defense groups that are reminiscent to those representing EuroMaidan, there are also some local tent camps, widespread wearing of black-and-yellow St. George ribbons on the streets of Crimean cities. “This is a mirror effect of EuroMaidan,” Brunova-Kalisetska said.
The pro-Russian camp is also experiencing euphoria, which could be witnessed in Crimea in recent days with numerous street celebrations attended by thousands of people showing off Russian and Soviet symbols, after the March 16 referendum which led to Putin to order the transfer of Ukraine’s Crimea to Russia. “But this euphoria obviously will not last for long,” the psychologist added.
Given the danger to people’s lives and their personal safety if they oppose the Russian takeover, Brunova-Kalisetska said that many residents are simply too frightened to protest.
“They don’t care about violence until it touches their relatives or friends,” she said.
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.