SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE – Men hawk Russian tricolor flags to drivers at traffic lights on the streets of the Crimean capital. Mini-vans emblazoned with election slogans belt out patriotic songs. A World War II bunker has become a drop-off point for people to donate blankets and canned food for armed militiamen who patrol the streets.
One of the two TV stations allowed to broadcast in Crimea these days makes no secret of its allegiances: It stuffs the airwaves with clips that display the slogan “March 16: Together with Russia” while blaring the Russian national anthem. They promise higher pensions, higher salaries and a better quality of life – within Russia’s embrace.
Days before the Black Sea peninsula votes in a referendum on joining Russia, Crimea has slipped into a twilight of nationalist fervor, uncertainty and trepidation.
For ethnic Russians, Sunday’s vote has been long coming, a chance to right what they see as a historic wrong. For the ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars who are the minority in Crimea, it is fear that dominates. They fear separation from Ukraine; they fear the loss of an identity that has always been vulnerable in Russian-dominated Crimea; and they fear outright attack from thugs who run around unchecked by the Kremlin-planted regional government.
In Crimea, momentum is clearly on the pro-Russian side. Pamphlets and fliers urging a “Yes” in Sunday’s referendum circulated briskly on the streets of Simferopol and the historic naval city of Sevastopol. “As a part of a mighty multinational country our culture and traditions will be protected,” one read.
“We’re ready to vote for (unification with) Russia,” said Svetlana Alexandrova, a 72-year-old retired translator. “Crimea is Russian and this vote is just bringing us home again.”
In Sevastopol, which is home to both the Russian and the Ukrainian Black Sea fleets, people sneered at Western reporters, saying the West was spreading lies and supporting “fascism” in the new government in Kiev. Interviews with people walking around the city center revealed overwhelming support for uniting with Russia.
The ethnic Ukrainian concerns about violence seem justified by reports of sporadic beatings, nighttime abductions and the beefed-up presence of Russian ultranationalists.
Vyacheslav Tymchuk, a 23-year-old pro-Ukrainian activist, said that he came across a group of about 10 men, some masked wearing camouflage and carrying automatic weaponS, pistols and knives, brutally beating two Ukrainian soldiers in the middle of Simferopol.
When he tried to stop the attack, he said, the men beat him up, pistol-whipping him and kicking him as he lay on the ground until he nearly lost consciousness.
“They didn’t even bother to ask me who I was,” said Tymchuck, whose right eye was swollen shut and whose head and body were covered in cuts and bruises. “They said nothing to me.”
Tents belonging to the far-right Russia Unity are scattered through the city’s center, collecting donations for “self-defense forces” and serving tea and snacks to burly men wearing red armbands and to Cossacks in camouflage who guard the entrance to the regional parliament building.
The government itself is run by a shadowy Kremlin protege nicknamed the “goblin” who has reported links to criminal gangs.
Crimea’s police department has warned people to be careful about showing passports to strangers – after reports circulated about unnamed people knocking on apartments and homes, asking to check passports needed to vote in the referendum, then either taking the passports or ripping them up if they showed the holder to be an ethnic Ukrainian.
With persistent reports about harassment by paramilitary “self-defense” groups, some Simferopol residents say they are unwilling to walk outside after dark. Some ethnic Ukrainian residents of Crimea’s capital city said their relationships with ethnic Russians friends and co-workers had become strained.
Sunday’s referendum has been organized in the wake of last month’s ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych after months of protests on the Kiev Square known as Maidan. For many ethnic Russians, the new government in Kiev represents radical Ukrainian nationalism.
Advocates of staying in the Ukrainian fold are not keeping quiet – despite the threat of violence.
At a pro-Ukrainian rally held next to a statue of the revered Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, more than 100 people gathered to hear speeches and sing the Ukrainian national anthem. Speakers led participants in chants including “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Nation! Death to Its Enemies!” They exhorted people to raise money and bring food to Ukrainian soldiers who have been surrounded by Russian paramilitaries at their bases.
Participants carried signs reading “If You Want to Live in Russia, then Move to Russia” and “The Referendum Is A Step Toward War.”
Dmitry Yermakov, an 18-year-old student at Simferopol’s main university, said he’ll flee if the referendum is adopted: “I’ll try to leave the country, go someplace else” – suggesting Canada, which has a large Ukrainian population, might be a possibility.
Galina Dzikhayeva, 52, director of an arts center and organizer of volunteer medical clinics being set up in the event of violence, called the referendum “completely illegitimate” and a violation of Ukrainian law.
Asked if she would vote, she said: “What’s the point? This vote is being conducted as a pro-forma way to create the façade of democracy here.”
Mikhail Vdovchenko, 28, a self-employed handyman carpenter, carried a Ukrainian flag on a tall wooden pole that he made only that morning. He said he had started tying a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian ribbon to his jacket every day – experiencing an epiphany as an ardent Ukrainian.
“Last week, I didn’t know I was a patriot,” said Vdovchenko, 28. “I never thought I’d be wearing a ribbon like this. They’ve turned me into a patriot.”
Amid reports of abductions of pro-Ukraine dissidents, Vdovchenko disappeared without a trace hours after the rally.