Crimeans given 2 options in referendum, neither is status quo
YALTA, Ukraine — Along the promenade of this historic Black Sea resort, billboards tout Sunday's referendum on Crimea's future.
“Join with Russia,” urges one with white, blue and red bands of Russia's flag as a background.
On another, a bouquet of snowdrop flowers is held together by a white-blue-red ribbon with a message: “Spring, Crimea, Russia.”
Artist Oksana Rasskalova, 43, puts down her paintbrush to explain the political reality that is foremost in every Crimean mind: “The majority of people here came from Russia. It is predictable what our choice will be.”
But separating from the rest of the country will be “really sad,” she says. “My mom lives in Ukraine, and we will be divided.
“The only thing I don't like about this referendum is that there is no compromise – it is Russia and no other side. … People voting yes or no, it doesn't matter. It has already been decided what will happen.”
The referendum appears to offer two options for Crimeans, but neither allows them to choose the status quo, experts say. The choices are to join the Russian Federation or to restore the 1992 Constitution and Crimea's status as part of Ukraine.
That second option would revive a document adopted soon after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 but then quickly rescinded by a newly independent Ukrainian government. It would allow Crimea to become independent and to make its own foreign-policy choices.
On streets and in shops here, many people are visibly reluctant to speak with a foreigner about the situation, or offer only a first name if they do talk.
For many, there appears to be only one real option.
“I am going to vote for joining Russia,” says Oleg Ignatyev, 42, another artist. “Aside from the politics and the economy, our mentality is different from the rest of Ukraine. We have the same spirit as the Russians.”
“You see that no one has ever felt that Crimea was part of Ukraine,” Rasskalova explains. And while Russian President Vladimir Putin may be a tyrant, “he made life better for many Russians.”
At the Crimean parliament in Simferopol, the regional capital, the only flags flying are Russian and Crimean. Russian Cossacks and local self-defense groups stand outside.
About 200 Ukrainian marines are inside their base in the nearby village of Perevalnoye, besieged by what many Ukrainians call “the mystery men in green” — thought to be Russian soldiers, with no insignia on their uniforms.
Andrey Karaulow, 43, a retired military officer, is part of that self-described defense group outside the base. Orange-and-black armbands on their military fatigues signify the Order of St. George, established by Russia's Catherine the Great in 1769; the colors symbolize fire and gunpowder.
“The referendum is the best way to see what people here want,” Karaulow insists. “We were slaves to Ukraine. We are free people and want to be free.”
He believes Crimea “will return to Russia, as it always was,” and “negate” the “mistake” of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
In 1954, Khrushshev signed Crimea over to Ukraine — but Ukraine was then part of the Soviet Union, until its 1991 breakup.
“On the Fourth of July, 1776, America declared independence and nobody tried to intervene,” Karaulow says.
As for those besieged Ukrainian marines, he says they will have three options if Crimea secedes: “Whoever wants to continue to work for Ukraine, we will create a green cordon to allow them to leave safely.” Those who want to stay in Crimea can do so; others, he thinks, may want to leave the military entirely.
Sipping coffee on the boardwalk in Alushta along the Black Sea, Lena Ushacho says she was initially happy when Russian soldiers — those “mystery men” — arrived.
“The Russian speakers were not oppressed here. But they felt that the new government would prohibit the Russian language — as they tried to do,” says Ushacho, 51, a shop owner.
“We saw the Russian troops and thought we were safe, and I felt at peace here.” But now “the propaganda is all pro-Russian, and they shut down all the Ukrainian television channels. Now we only get Russian channels.”
She will “vote to be part of Ukraine. I just want to show the authorities — if they are interested in knowing — that not 100 percent of us are with joining Russia.”
In this area, with its seaside boardwalks, cypress-lined streets and mountain backdrops, many Crimeans survive on tourism. Right now, tourists are canceling reservations and staying away; people here hope that will change in a year or two — under Russia.
“We will see in three years, who was right and who was wrong,” says Rasskalova, the painter.
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at email@example.com.