Early this month, Russian soldiers took up positions at the television Transmission center here in the capital of the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Their arrival marked part of a broad effort to muffle dissent over the Kremlin-backed project to guide Crimea through a swift secession from Ukraine.
Several days later the soldiers handed over their post to a pro-secession militia. Some of these men carried whips. Technicians took the next step, removing Ukrainian networks from the air and replacing them with state-controlled channels from Moscow.
By this week the transformation was complete. The media hub’s entrance was adorned with bright flags and banners. A young woman cheerfully urged journalists to be seated for a pro-secession news conference at what she now called, with a confident Orwellian flair, the Open Press Center – no matter that several television station signals had just been unplugged.
the switchover marked one step in the abrupt shift in civic life on the Crimean peninsula, where open dissent has been suppressed by the implicit threat of force. In a matter of days, the Kremlin has succeeded in recreating the constrained conditions of Russia’s own civic sphere in Crimea.The switchover marked one step in the abrupt shift in civic life on the Crimean peninsula, where open dissent has been suppressed by the implicit threat of force. In a matter of days, the Kremlin has succeeded in recreating the constrained conditions of Russia’s own civic sphere in Crimea. Continue reading the main storyWith a mix of targeted intimidation, an expansive military occupation by unmistakably elite Russian units and many of the trappings of the election-season carnivals that have long accompanied rigged ballots across the old Soviet world, Crimea has been swept almost instantaneously into the Kremlin’s fold.This has happened well ahead of the referendum, set for Sunday, after which, barring an extraordinary surprise, the peninsula’s interim authorities, led by a previously unsuccessful politician nicknamed the Goblin, will announce that its citizens have voted to leave Ukraine and seek a place in President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia.To ensure an unchallenged realignment of territory, and to project power to anyone who might resist, the organizers of secession have relied repeatedly on strong-arm tactics familiar to Mr. Putin’s opponents at home. Organizers of counterprotests have been threatened and in some cases disappeared. Armed men in masks patrol around strategic sites.
Crimean journalists have been ordered not to describe the soldiers on their soil as Russian or to use the word “occupation.” And foreign and local journalists have been beaten and had their materials confiscated by uniformed men who are not officially connected to any government.Civilian airline flights to and from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, have been blocked. The Berkut riot police, disbanded in February under accusations of brutality by Ukraine, the state they once served, have regrouped in Crimea, where they stand as enforcers of the new authorities’ will.All the while, Ukrainian government centers are blockaded by a mix of Russian troops and men identifying themselves as their supporters.This has played out while thickets of signs declaring “Together with Russia” have sprouted along roadways, urging citizens to vote to leave Ukraine.Whether this intensive social and political pressure is even necessary is subject to debate.Crimea, once part of Russia, has a strong historical and linguistic alignment with its Slavic neighbors to the east; many residents consider themselves Russian and approve of rejoining the revived Russian state.But the Kremlin is taking no chances. It has ensured that most anyone who might publicly resist secession is marginalized or discouraged.
On Monday, roughly 30 men in camouflage and carrying clubs pushed into Simferopol’s military hospital, walking the corridors and telling Ukrainian military officers there to leave.The men stood in the hospital’s entrance for hours, checking documents of anyone who arrived. The hospital’s director, Lt. Col. Evgeny A. Pivovar, an Ukrainian Army surgeon, said the men barred him from his own office. “They said, ‘You don’t work here anymore,'” he said.While the intruders made no explicit threats, he said, it was not necessary. “Their presence here, it was understood,” he said, glumly.
After several hours, the men left, Colonel Pivovar said. But he does not know what will happen after the referendum on Sunday. From that moment, Ukrainian military bases and buildings, like the hospital, could be declared Crimean property.The colonel’s wife is from Crimea, and the couple has a young daughter. He said he expects he will leave the peninsula for Ukraine. His family will likely stay behind. “I do not know what will be after the 16th,” he said.
The campaign of intimidation, which seems intended to squeeze out Crimea’s already relatively small dissenting population, is already having an effect.Pro-Ukrainian activists have been flowing out of Crimea, frightened by an atmosphere of mounting aggression and growing indications that the police will no longer protect them.“The security services here have gone over completely to the side of the bandits,” said Sergei Makrenyuk, an organizer of the Crimean branch of the pro-revolutionary EuroMaidan group
Mr. Makrenyuk, 35, fled Crimea on Tuesday, after his name and address were read out at a pro-Russian rally in his hometown of Feodosiya, with calls for the crowd to go to his house.He said that more than a dozen other activists involved in pro-European demonstrations had left the peninsula this week. “Everyone already understands that we aren’t going to be able to return,” he said by phone on his way to Kiev with his wife and children.Their decision was in part informed by the events of last Sunday, when two pro-Ukraine activists — Andriy Shchekun and Anatoliy Kovalskiy — were seized by pro-Russian militia at Simferopol’s train station.
Sergei Kovalskiy, Mr. Kovalskiy’s son, said that the two men, who are prominent in the Ukrainian language and cultural movement here, were taken by people identifying themselves as members of Russian Unity, the political party headed by Crimea’s new prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov.Whether this was an arrest or an abduction depends on each Crimean’s point of view.
On Monday, Mr. Aksyonov said that Crimean security forces were holding Mr. Kovalskiy for possessing large quantities of “provocative materials.” Mr. Kovalskiy, he added, will be held through the referendum. Then he might be set free.“He will be released if he will not conduct undermining activity on the territory of Crimea,” Mr. Aksyonov told KrimInform news agency, another new feature of Crimea’s news media scene, launched by Russia’s state-controlled Itar-Tass last week.
The prime minister’s mention of “Crimean security services” instead of self-defense militias illustrated a blurring of lines between former law-enforcement bodies and the groups of armed pro-secession men that have organized this month.In the past two weeks, areas formally under Ukrainian adminstration have become dominated by vigilante groups that appear answerable to Mr. Askyonov personally and that openly collaborate with the Russian military.
As the strength of these semi-formal structures has grown, the local police’s authority has become flimsy.On Simferopol’s streets, traffic police are now accompanied by masked men in assorted camouflage, Kalashnikov rifles in hand.Buses deliver pro-Russian Cossacks to blockade government offices, providing yet another reserve of loyalist muscle.Other pressures are more subtle.Anna Andrievskaya, a senior correspondent for the Crimean edition of Argument Nedeli, a widely-read Russian newspaper, said that on the day that the engineers reconfigured the television tower, she and her editor in chief resigned.The resignations, she said, became necessary after their editors in Moscow informed them that they were forbidden from referring to the armed men appearing around Crimea as Russian troops or making any use of the word “occupation.”“Crimea is not yet part of Russia, at least not on paper,” she said. “But freedom is already curtailed.”