Crimeans are already receiving their pensions in Russian rubles, going to work according to Moscow time, and resigning themselves to losing a holiday day during Easter that they would have been entitled to under Ukrainian legislation.
Since a March 16 referendum that gave Russian President Vladimr Putin his justification for incorporating Crimea into the Russian Federation, the mood among even those Crimeans who oppose annexation is mostly one of sullen resignation or despair, as opposed to a will to fight.
While Ukraine stunned the world with the three-month EuroMaidan Revolution in Kyiv, no comparable protests have erupted in Crimea to Russian rule.
Political scientist Sergei Kostinsky believes that protest is simply not the way of most Crimeans.
He refers to a United Nations Development Program survey, which found in 2012 that only 30 percent of Crimeans were prepared to take part in acts of protest, although 60 percent said they were unhappy with the economic situation in Crimea and Ukraine. A mere 12 percent said they were ready to protest over infringement of language, religious or other rights.
“The Crimean community is fragmented, atomized and imbued with mutual distrust, due to that difficult period of survival during the crises of the 1990s,” Kostinsky says.
Kostinsky points out that a large share of the population are state employees or pensioners (about 25 percent of the population, or 500,000 people) who are dependent on the state and used to a political culture of paternalism.
Kostinsky thinks many of these people were united by Russian as the common language, but by little else. “You can’t call them Russian,” he says. “Really this sector of the Crimean population are Soviet citizens and their descendants who lost their state.”
A traffic police officer and an armed masked man check a minivan cargo in the Crimean capital Simferopol, on April 1, 2014. Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev promised yesterday to modernise Crimea's crumbling infrastructure by turning the region into a "special economic zone" of Russia that would attract investment through lower tax rates. AFP PHOTO/ MAX VETROV
For the moment, Russian anti-Ukraine propaganda, and promises of better salaries and pensions, seem to have united these people in a sudden flowering of pro-Russian identity and fervour.
But Ukrainians and pro-Ukrainians in Crimea have not found a similar unifying force.
Although there was local Crimean support for EuroMaidan, most Crimeans who wanted to express it publicly either felt threatened or actually were threatened, while activists who came from Kyiv were attacked or kidnapped.
“Right now I’m very scared,” said psychologist Irina Brunova-Kalisetska, days after the referendum.
A non-government sector worker in Simferopol who supported the EuroMaidan Revolution, Brunova-Kalisetska thinks that Independence Square in Kyiv, as a physical location that attracted activists from all over Ukraine, helped the EuroMaidan movement succeed.
In Simferopol, by contrast, police and pro-Russian Cossacks and local self-defense groups took over the central Lenin Square. It was apparently from here that the Crimean Tatar activist Reshat Ametov was taken away on March 3 after a pro-EuroMaidan demonstration. His badly beaten body was found two weeks later.
“Maidan is a place, but here we didn’t have such a place where we could meet and come to talk and help each other and create real action,” said Brunova-Kalisetska. She and fellow Ukraine sympathizers even felt uneasy meeting in Simferopol cafes, preferring to get together in private flats or offices.
A trolleybus rides from the peninsula's main city Simferopol to the Black Sea coastal resort of Yalta, on March 28, 2014. Almost every day for the past 30 years, through Crimea's turbulent recent history as part of the Soviet Union, a republic within independent Ukraine and now Russia's newest addition, Natalia Yudenkova has climbed behind the wheel of her number 52 trolleybus to ride 85 km (53 miles) from Simferopol to Yalta , the longest trolleybus journey anywhere in the world. AFP PHOTO/ DMITRY SEREBRYAKOV
In mainland Ukraine, students were at the forefront of EuroMaidan protests.
But in Crimea, students were pressured to conform to an apolitical or pro-Russian stance even before Russian soldiers appeared on the streets at the end of February.
One fourth year student in the Crimean Medical University, too afraid to be publicly identified, said students were told they had to attend an important conference about their courses, but instead had to listen to Crimean parliament deputies encourage them not to support events in Kyiv.
Evelina Asanova, a philosophy student at the Tauride National University, also said students were gathered together and told not to attend pro-EuroMaidan events or "they might have problems."
Now, students who oppose annexation feel helpless. The student who talked to the Kyiv Post is switching his courses to Lviv and will leave Crimea soon.
Asanova and a few like-minded friends have simply stopped attending university. “We’re afraid we’ll say the wrong thing in a seminar,” says Asanova, a philosophy student at the Tauride National University. “In Ukraine we have freedom of speech, in Russia we don’t. So we’re thinking of our safety.”
Increasing the sense of isolation and despair among opponents to annexation is a growing sense that the Ukrainian government has abandoned them to their fate
“Of course most Ukrainian patriots in Crimea are disappointed,”’ says Kostinsky. “In their opinion it was entirely possible not to allow the division of Crimea from Ukraine.”
Not only did the Ukrainian government fail to repel Russian forces who took over army bases and the Crimean parliament, it then proposed a law on Crimea as occupied territory that could criminalise Crimeans who wish to continue to conduct business there, or cross the border with mainland Ukraine.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has expressed concern about the draft law, which it says may restrict Crimeans’ ability to re-join family members, seek medical attention or take care of their property back in Crimea.
Vincent Cochetel, director of UNHCR’s Bureau for Europe, noted in a press release that proposed restrictions on economic activities “would possibly confront the people of Crimea with an impossible dilemma: to stay and run against Ukrainian law, or leave. Many may reluctantly take the decision to leave their homes, families and communities. National laws or local regulations should not force people into such hard choices.”
A version of the law is due to be adopted by the Ukrainian parliament next week. But many Crimeans view it as an unjustified attack on their already impossible position. “Soon we might be put in prison in Ukraine as collaborators, just because we work here,” said Natalia Rudenko, founder and head teacher of the only Ukrainian-language school in Simferopol.
The one exception to the sense of fractured isolation and despair among Crimeans who oppose annexation is the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic Muslim people who count Crimea as their historical homeland. Numbering about 300,000 in Crimea and represented by a central executive body, the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatars declared a national boycott of the referendum and organised protests throughout Crimea before March 16.
But while the Mejlis’ official position is still one of opposition to annexation and the new Crimean government, on April 1 after days of discussion it deputised two Crimean Tatars representatives to participate in that government.
“It was a very difficult discussion, about how ethical or moral it is to put forward candidates to those organs that…have questionable legitimacy,” head of the Mejlis Refat Chubarov said. “But the discussion is centred on facts that have happened and that we have to recognise: not their legitimacy, but their existence.”
The Mejlis is very clear that it will work within the framework of Russian government only in order to protect Crimean Tatar rights and further their main aim: the establishment of Crimean Tatar autonomy. Within the close-knit Crimean Tatar community, debate continues about how far both the Mejlis and individuals should oppose the reality they now find themselves in. Many Crimean Tatars are prepared if necessary to return to a tradition of peaceful protest honed over many years of opposition in the Soviet Union.
“It’s been said that if any authority that exists in Crimea does not recognise the right of the Crimean Tatars to self-determination, then Crimean Tatars will respond in kind to that government, and they have a very great experience in political struggle with such authorities,” Chubarov said.
Minority, strongly-religious sectors of the Crimean Tatar population who might have been expected to oppose Russia, like the pan-Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, have been silent since the referendum. Prominent members’ phones go unanswered – unsurprisingly, since Hizb ut-Tahrir is outlawed in Russia as a terrorist organisation. But now that Crimea is de facto operating under Russian law, things are set to get a lot more difficult not only for Hizb ut-Tahrir, but for anyone who dares object to annexation.
In recent weeks Russia has been busy hardening already repressive laws on freedom of speech and assembly. On April 1 lawmakers in the Russian parliament proposed increasing penalties to up to five years imprisonment for holding unsanctioned meetings and demonstrations, or violating approved organisation of such events.
A few weeks ago Putin signed a law criminalizing public calls for violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, meaning that any Crimean who openly opposes the annexation may be fined or sentenced to up to five years in prison
One civil rights activist from Moscow also too afraid to be identified publicly such laws are all too familiar. This woman bought a house in a Crimean village last year, after giving up on years of opposition in Russia.
“I realised there was no point, because the authorities were too strong and the Russian people are atrophied and just not ready,” she said. “I was so happy when Maidan won; I thought, ‘now Crimea will be free and I’ll move here for good’. And when instead I knew that it was going to be Russia here – I’m just totally in shock.”
In Moscow, she worked as a volunteer organising the few meetings that are officially sanctioned by the Russian authorities. She took part in an unsanctioned meeting outside the Kremlin after the Russian Duma approved use military force in Crimea, and saw how it was roughly broken up by the police.
“All people were doing was holding up signs saying ‘no war’. It wasn’t anti-Putin or against the government,” she says. “I think open opposition now, the fight for citizens’ freedom and rule of law, is pointless. How can the European Court of Human Rights help, when we see what’s happened in Crimea? Sanctioned meetings don’t have any effect. It’s only when people are prepared to stand in the street knowing they’ll be beaten, they’re ready to be arrested… There’s no legitimate way of changing the state or entering into dialogue with the state, and as long as Putin is our czar there won’t be any chance.”
Thus far it seems Crimeans – Russian, Ukrainian, Crimean Tatar – are not prepared to take that difficult step of standing in the street to be beaten or arrested in order to express their opposition. And a dread of bloodshed runs very deep among these people, most of whom have lived through or grown up with stories of war and invasion. Despite a very real sense of anger, disillusionment and hopelessness, no one is talking of armed opposition. Instead they are settling down to bow their heads and endure.
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.