During the Maidan uprising, I was in Ukraine. I spent a total of one week in Kiev and Simferopol, shooting a documentary about the uprising and the future of Crimea. In addition, I compiled my experience there for CNNTurk.com, on 03.18.14, in Turkish: http://www.cnnturk.com/haber/dunya/referandum-oncesi-ve-sonrasi-kirim
Two great question marks have washed ashore the Black Sea coast: will Crimea – with 36% of its population comprising of Tatars and Ukrainians – become a stage of civil war? Will Russia send more troops to pro-Russian cities in Eastern Ukraine?
Last week, I was in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. Contrary to my expectations, we left the airport without any problems. A few days had past, since Russian troops left the Simferopol Airport. People in the streets were celebrating World Women’s Day. At a pizzeria, women customers were trying their luck in a gift lottery. They all had smiles in their faces. Had we exaggerated the tensions in Crimea?
We checked in to the Malibu Hotel, where most of the Turkish journalists were staying. Rooms were clean, prices were reasonable and we were close to the action. A news agency reporter briefed us on what had been happening in the past few days. The most important advice we received from him was how to avoid getting beaten up.
Civilian activist, Russian troops and militia occupy the streets of Simferopol. The militia could also be called gang members – depending on your point of view. Foreign journalists have to be especially careful about the gangs. They are known for attacking journalists for photographing them.
However, the person who posed us the greatest threat was not a gang member. He was a civilian activist. Hundreds gathered at Lenin Square were joyfully singing marches. Their flags covered the skies in blue, red and white – Russia’s national colors.
Right after we had finished filming the day’s events, an old man stopped my cameraman. He started yelling at him in Russian. Then, he lifted his fist up high. Just as I was trying to pull the cameraman away from the protestor, the old man cut my way.
What worried us the most was not the fist’s landing on our faces, but rather what would have happened after the punch. A lynch would have occurred! At the Square, there were many looking for such opportunities for provocation. To our surprise, we were able to walk away – at least this time.
Meanwhile, a pro-Ukrainian demonstration was taking place just a few kilometers from Lenin Square. The number of demonstrators gathered at Schevchenko Park was about a tenth of the pro-Russians activists.
I had spotted a gang walking towards Schevchenko Park in single file. Even the thought that the group could attack the pro-Ukrainians was deeply disturbing. However, despite the tension prevalent in the streets of Simferopol the two sides did not clash physically – at least not yet.
My next stop was the Crimean Tatar Parliament. There, I met Mustafa Kirimoglu, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament and the leader of the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim, Turkic minority group. He was anxious. During the Maidan uprising, pro-Russian demonstrators and the Tatars have only clashed once. As a result of the confrontation, two Russians had lost their lives. Later, when the pro-Russian militia took over the Crimean Parliament, Kirimoglu advised the Tatars to remain calm. The Tatars have so far listened to Kirimoglu’s wise words. However, he accepts that keeping the Tatar youth at home is a challenge.
After our interview, Mustafa Kirimoglu made his way to the Perevalne military base, just outside of Simferopol. For days, the base had been surrounded by Russian troops who kept the Ukrainian soldiers hostage. As a Ukrainian MP, Kirimoglu wanted to check up on the hostages.
The cameraman and I stopped by the same military base, the next day. About ten Russian troops were on patrol. They had set camp right across from the base. Dozens of military vehicles were lined up right next to the tents. As we were filming, I kept thinking about the hostages. For a soldier, a more embarrassing situation was unimaginable.
Under the watchful eyes of the Russian troops, Crimeans went to the polls. The purpose of the March 16th referendum was to decide whether Crimea should unite with Russia or not. Every Crimean I had spoken to was certain of the result of the referendum: Crimea would become a part of Russia. They were right. According to the Crimean Election Commission, 83% of the eligible voters had participated and 96.8% voted for union.
After the referendum, two great question marks have washed ashore the Black Sea coast: will Crimea with 36% of its population comprising of Tatars and Ukrainians become a stage of civil war? Will Russia send more troops to pro-Russian cities in Eastern Ukraine? The Tatars and the Ukrainians in Crimea boycotted the Referendum. However, they haven’t begun protesting in the streets yet. They are watching the developments with great anxiety.
And the second great question mark… Rustam Temirgaliyev, the Crimean Deputy Prime Minister, claimed that 75% of Eastern Ukrainians would like to become a part of the Russian Federation. In the Eastern city of Donetsk, Russian flags can be spotted on government buildings. However, the most striking development took place on the border between Crimea and Ukraine, where 80 Russian soldiers seized a power plant, which prompted some to believe that President Putin was initiating a full-fledged invasion.
The Ukrainian government has called 40,000 reserves to duty. It is highly unlikely that the Ukrainian army would face the Russians without Western military support. However, if the nationalists who currently control Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, do not take Crimea’s secession well, the color of the Black Sea might turn red.