The questions in the March 16 referendum on the future of Crimea were formulated so as to leave the voter only two options: support an immediate union with Russia, or vote for a broad autonomy that made joining the big neighbor to the East only a question of time.
Crimea has been under Russian military control since February 27. There were no observers at the referendum, and the results were both widely expected to be rigged and to produce results that would show overwhelming support for an immediate union with Russia.
An overwhelming 95.5% of those who voted duly said they wanted the union.
The context in which the referendum was held is staggeringly similar to another poll, held in Austria on April 10, 1938. That referendum took place less than a month after German forces had entered Austria and had a 99.71% turnout, with 99.73% of Austrians voting in favor of unification with Germany. The vote sealed the Anschluss, turning Austria into the province of Ostmark within the larger German Reich.
The Crimean referendum took place against the background of a full-scale propaganda campaign led by the Kremlin-controlled media.
In what was likely the worst threat related through the press since the Cold War, the Kremlin’s chief propagandist Dmitry Kiselev said on state TV that “Russia was the only country able to turn the US into radioactive ash.” A giant mushroom-shaped cloud blossomed in the background as he spoke.
Russia systematically raises allegations of “fascism” against the Kiev government and its supporters, and it uses largely exaggerated threats of anti-Semitism and anti-Russian sentiment to support its campaign in Crimea. But just last week a number of tabloids in Moscow published reports of attacks on mostly Jewish celebrities and public figures who had openly criticized Russia’s military effort in Crimea.
Written in language hauntingly reminiscent of Soviet anti-Jewish campaigns, the articles referred to those who protest the move on Crimea as the “fifth column,” and “national traitors.” The latter term is the invention of Vladmir Putin, who used it last week to label Russians who oppose his policy.
Crimea today finds itself under Russian rule for all legal and practical intents and purposes. On March 18 Russian members of Parliament flocked to the Kremlin to hear Putin’s well-staged address announcing the peninsula’s annexation, and to witness the signing of an agreement sealing the deal. The address was interrupted by standing ovations, and the well-prepared audience, that included Russia’s chief Chabad rabbi Berel Lazar, waved flags of both Russia and Crimea as it cheered the president.
Chabad in Russia has waged a protracted battle with another Jewish Orthodox umbrella organization, Congress of the Jewish Religious Organizations and Associations in Russia, over the status of chief rabbi and favoritism with the authorities. It has gotten ugly at times, including an alleged attempt to drown a young rabbi in a Moscow mikveh.
Since Berel Lazar and not Adolf Shayevich, the Congress’s pick, was eventually awarded the coveted chief rabbi title, Chabad representatives have become permanent fixtures at Kremlin events, and often speak on behalf of the whole of Russia’s Jewry to support Moscow’s opposition-crushing policies.
The lower house of the Russian parliament ratified the treaty to absorb Crimea on Thursday, with members voting 443 to one (abstention) in favor. The upper house voted unanimously for integration on Friday.
The evening of March 18 saw a pro-annexation demonstration in Moscow’s Red Square. Pop music blasted from an enormous stage erected next to the Kremlin’s ancient walls, and over 100,000 people, according to official estimates, rallied under the slogan “One People – One Country.” An unoriginal statement, which is part of a similar slogan that was invented by another authoritarian leader in the 20th century.
Adolf Hitler’s mantra “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” (One People, One Empire, One Leader) was widely used in Nazi propaganda on the eve of and throughout WWII.
With massive pro-Russian demonstrations taking place in major population centers in Eastern Ukraine, sources in Moscow and Kiev have told The Times of Israel they are convinced that Russia’s ambitions will not be satisfied with Crimea alone.
Russia’s Central Bank has already spent over $20 billion to stabilize the falling ruble. And ratings firm Standard & Poor’s downgraded Russia’s investment outlook to “negative” in the wake of the crisis over Crimea and in light of possible US and EU sanctions against Russia.
Money is fleeing Russia, as well. Capital outflows stood at $63 billion dollars overall in 2013. But the outlook for the first quarter of 2014 is already pointing at $65 billion.
It’s not just money that is on the move.
According to Ukrainian Minister of Labor and Social Welfare Ludmila Denisova, 25,000 Crimeans are looking to leave the peninsula and move to mainland Ukraine. Denisova said that a special government committee has been set up to deal with finding accommodations for refugees, many of whom arrive without cash, as Ukrainian banks have suspended operations in Crimea.
According to data provided by the Lvov municipal authorities, the Western Ukrainian city and its surroundings already house 836 Crimeans. 1,738 more have contacted the municipality, which is looking to match them with 2,238 Lvov natives who have volunteered to host their displaced brethren.
The Times of Israel spoke to a Crimean Jew who works in Kiev and shuttles back between the Ukrainian capital and his hometown of Yalta, where his wife and 4-year-old son live. “People bought massive amounts of groceries before the (March 16th) referendum, since there were rumors that prices will go up. Since then, the shops have barely been restocked. Crimea receives all its dairy products from the mainland, and my wife already called me to say that there is no fresh milk in the stores. We have a four year old and although he is not a baby he does want his oatmeal every morning.”
Credit cards can barely be used in Crimea anymore, and banks that first limited one-time withdrawals to an equivalent of $30 no longer have any cash. Russian currency is not yet circulating in Crimea and it is not clear when the peninsula will switch from Ukrainian currency — that is no longer being delivered — to the ruble, which will have to flow from Moscow.
When asked whether he and his family were thinking about leaving, the Jewish man who spoke with The Times of Israel seemed completely disoriented and unable to think long-term. “We are afraid to leave and have our apartment remain locked-up and unsupervised. Soon people will be hard up for money, and there will be looting. The summer tourist season [when Crimeans’ incomes soar] is done for,” he continued. “We can hold out for a couple more weeks, but I have no idea what happens next. We just need to survive.”
While the government is only now setting up a refugee assistance effort, David Hladkiy, a Jewish lawyer and human rights activist from Kiev, has been working to help people for weeks. Since the Russian invasion, Hladkiy has set up a full-scale operation, staffed by volunteers, that finds shelter and provides financial support for Crimeans looking to leave the peninsula.
He estimates that his group has been able to find temporary homes for at least 350 Crimeans of all ethnicities. The funding came from Hladkiy’s own funds (which have now run out), and from the Jewish community of Kiev, as well as individuals from all over Ukraine, Washington, New York, Chicago, Israel, Poland and Lithuania. Hladkiy says that he received messages from whole villages in Western Ukraine who are willing to host Crimeans for indefinite periods of time.
Since those leaving the peninsula often have no cash and can no longer use their credit cards, frequently, train tickets or some money for gas are all that is needed to help a family relocate.
Hladkiy’s alma mater, the International Solomon University in Kiev, has provided volunteers with a place to coordinate the resettlement effort. It also hosts a pro-bono law clinic that advises refugees on their rights. The clinic is staffed by 30 law students from the university.
Alexander Khrybka, the owner of a small hotel located right next to Kiev’s Boryspil International Airport, found Hladkiy on Facebook and offered food and shelter to Crimeans at his hotel. He says the people he is hosting now are welcome to stay indefinitely, as an end to the conflict is not in sight.
“I grew up in Western Ukraine and spent many years in the east of the country as well,” says Khrybka. “When I moved to Kiev people helped me out in the beginning, so I feel that I have to help others who now find themselves in a predicament.” We should have given up Crimea a long time ago,” continues Alexander in desperation, adding that a vast majority of Crimeans have never shared his Ukrainian identity. “We should have given it up in a way such that no one would have wanted to take it,” he adds.
Now it is a foregone conclusion that Crimea is gone.
As Russia continues to subsidize the peninsula and cover the economic losses incurred as a result of its campaign, the fate of Crimeans remains unclear. With just welfare transfers estimated to cost Russia upwards of $1 billion a year, it remains to be seen whether Crimeans will be better off economically under their new sovereign. Politically, it seems, the fate of Crimea has been sealed.
“Life is hard in Ukraine, but at least we are free to say what we think,” a source told The Times of Israel from Yalta. “In Russia we will not have that luxury.”