Sunday, March 16 – the referendum day – started with a morning visit to three polling stations. By 10 a.m. mainly the elderly turned out to vote in large numbers, some of them very frail and most visibly poor. While those approached outside insist that their vote to join Russia is not affected by material considerations, a few admit that the prospect of having their miserable Ukrainian pensions doubled is “a pleasing prospect.” Around 10:30 families with children start arriving, with the young people to follow after midday. It’s a windy, drizzly day, but the officials say that this does not appear to affect the turnout, which exceeded 50 percent of registered voters in the first four hours. The atmosphere is relaxed, no police or armed men in sight. In one place the PA system played Soviet-era pop (the ubiquitous Podmoskovnie Vechera included); in another complimentary tea and cookies were served.
Early p.m.: back to the Assembly building for a couple of live interviews with the RT and Al-Jazeera, followed by a well deserved double espresso with PBS’s Margaret Warner in a nearby café. We tacitly agree to disagree on the genesis of the current crisis and its likely aftermath. She is off to eastern Ukraine tomorrow, where most local oligarchs seem to have sided with the authorities in Kiev and a few high-profile have accepted gubernatorial posts. Interestingly, crossing the isthmus to the mainland by car appears not to be an issue.
Back at the hotel, browsing the Net over lunch I am startled by the full text of President Obama’s Executive Order (“Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Ukraine”) which was issued last week, but which I have not had the opportunity to read in full until now. It is an incredible document, with the potential to affect all those (whether American or not) who disagree with the U.S. government policy or positions in this part of the world and dare declare their disagreement in public. In the preamble the President claims that all actions “that undermine democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine; threaten its peace, security, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; and contribute to the misappropriation of its assets, constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”:
I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat. I hereby order:
Section 1. (a) All property and interests in property that are in the United States… of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in: any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State:
(i) to be responsible for or complicit in, or to have engaged in, directly or indirectly, [emphasis added] any of the following:
(A) actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine;
(B) actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine [ … ]
For the purposes of this order, President Obama specifies that “the term ‘United States person’ means any United States citizen, permanent resident alien, entity organized under the laws of the United States or any jurisdiction within the United States (including foreign branches), or any person in the United States” (Sec. 6c). Furthermore, he determines “that for these measures to be effective in addressing the national emergency declared in this order, there need be no prior notice of a listing or determination made pursuant to section 1 of this order.” (Sec. 7)
It is not hard to imagine the reaction of our mainstream media and politicians had Vladimir Putin declared a national emergency to deal with the “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the Russian Federation” arising from Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008. Had he imposed similar sanctions on “persons or entities, Russian or foreign, responsible for or complicit in, or to have engaged in, directly or indirectly, actions or policies that threaten the territorial integrity of Serbia,” he would have been duly Hitlerized six years before Hillary Clinton screamed “Munich!” last February.
Monday, March 17 – After a brief midday news conference on the results of the referendum, my driver and interpreter takes me to Sevastopol, strategically the most important location along the shores of the Black Sea. Situated on a rocky promontory at the southwestern tip of the Crimea, ever since Catherine the Great it has been one of the strongest fortified points in the world. The city’s configuration and the entrance to the port are somewhat reminiscent of Portsmouth, but – unlike any British city in modern times – Sevastopol was doomed to endure two epic and very bloody sieges. One lasted a year during the Crimean War (1854-55) and the other, far more savage, went on for eight grueling months at the height of the Army Group South’s advance into Russia (November 1941-July 1942). Both episodes provide an inexhaustible treasure trove for military historians; they also underline Sevastopol’s current emotional, as well as strategic, significance for Russia and for the Russians who inhabit it.
At the entrance to the city there used to be a local militia checkpoint, but it was removed a week ago. The only esthetically pleasing buildings hark back to the Czarist era. Like everywhere else in the former USSR, there are also a few ugly specimens of Stalin’s neoclassicism. Near the sea promenade I finally encounter a Crimean self-defense patrol, two youngsters with guns (one of them constantly chatting to his girlfriend on the cell phone) and two unarmed Cossacks from the Kuban. Across the square a bearded man plays Russian folk songs on the accordion, a few elderly ladies providing impromptu vocals. Along the promenade a plaque commemorates the departure of the last White forces from Russia in November 1920. There are far fewer strollers than in Yalta two days ago; the wind brings chilly sea mist and the waves are gray.
We stop for a late lunch at Bakhchisaray, the old Crimean Tatar capital 25 miles north of Sevastopol. This predominantly Tatar town of 30,000 looks and feels Anadolian rather than Soviet. The Khan’s Palace is closed (it’s Monday), but the restaurants are open, although pretty empty at 4 p.m. The traditional Tatar fare is more Turkish than Central Asian, and herbal tea is the beverage of choice. Being entrepreneurial, after their return from exile in 1991 some Tatars have started planting vineyards which by now yield decent vintages of mainly sweet and demi-sec reds. There is not an armed man, of any race or nationality, to be seen. As the evening call to prayers echoes from the minarets, we depart for Simferopol.
It is from this place that The Guardian reported two days ago that “ethnic tensions were reaching boiling point.” It was a lie, of course. Ever since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s it has been reasonable to assume that whatever we read or hear in the Western media about anything is a lie. The events in Ukraine and around Ukraine over the past four months, and my four days in the Crimea, have only confirmed what we know.