By Anjali Ojha
Yalta (Crimea) Oct 23 : Its two years since a referendum returned Crimea to Russia from the Ukraine and life goes on as usual in the popular tourist destination. The referendum has been largely rejected by the West, but for the locals, the result was largely like “returning home”.
The majority ethnic Russians, who make 65 per cent of the population against 15 per cent ethnic Ukrainians, are happy with the result, but the tension with Ukraine is not welcome.
“Crimea has historically been a part of Russia. It’s our national honour,” business executive Alexe Baturkin, walking with his son sitting on his shoulders, told IANS, adding that while he was happy Crimea is back with Russia, the politics around the referendum is unnecessary and the tension is like fighting with one’s own brother.
“Different countries can live together. Ukranians are our brothers. We have lived together for many hundred years. I have been to Moscow, I have been to Kiev, we don’t want to shoot them. For my son, I want peace,” Baturkin said.
In the referendum, held on March 16, 2014, the Russian government said 97 percent of the votes cast were in favour of Russia, which subsequently annexed the region.
Soon after, however, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution with 100 countries, including the US, the UK and Japan, backing Ukraine’s “territorial integrity”.
India, Pakistan and China were among the 58 countries that abstained from voting.
For Natasha, a singer in her 30s who is a Ukrainian, the tension is more than a political issue. She has her family and a son in the Ukraine and has not been able to visit them for almost two years now.
Natasha did not vote in the referendum. “I like Russia, but I also like Ukraine. My family is there in Ukraine, I wish the countries to remain friends,” she said.
Alan Kamarzaev, a musician by profession, termed the situation post the annexation as “complicated”. “We wanted the referendum to happen. We are pleased with the results and it is absolutely true, not fake. The atmosphere during the time of the referendum was good. People liked the winds of change,” said Kamarzaev.
Asked if he is happy with the changes in the last two years, Kamarazaev said: “It is complicated, it will take me hours to explain.”
Natalie Alaveva, who works at Palmira Palace Resort here, did not want to answer the “political question”, yet said: “In the referendum, the people voted for peace so that our children are safe, so that we go for walks in peace.”
Alaveva, like the others, felt the differences with Ukraine should be discussed and settled.
Journalist Alexander Mashchenko, meanwhile, said that the recent Russian parliamentary election saw 60 percent voting in Crimea. The 25 years spent with Ukraine post the collapse of the Soviet Union were but an accident, he added.
Not all were happy though. Alexander Nitkin, who runs a tour and travel firm in Yalta, said those who have been in Crimea for a few generations did not vote for Russia. He also said he felt the figure of 97 per cent is an exaggeration.
“I am a native Crimean, our roots here go back to the 19th century. I did not vote for Russia. Those who have been here for three or four generations did not vote for Russia,” he said, adding, however, that most of those favouring Ukraine did not go to vote at all.
Nitkin also alleged the demography of Crimea had changed over the years and more Russians were settled in the region.
“The Soviets were flooding Crimea with their people to substitute the Crimean Tatars,” he asserted.
However, for Nitkin, like those who voted for Russia, Crimea is his motherland and being a Crimean is his true identity.
“This is my place. We have to deal with this (referendum result) whether we feel comfortable or not. In the last 300 years, Crimea has been under different countries. But as they say bad peace is better than war. Crimea has been a melting pot, we are proud Crimeans,” he said.
Nitikin also admitted that the Western sanctions against Russia after its annexation of Crimea has affected business in the popular tourist destination.
Crimea has been sort of isolated economically as most major international banks do not work in the region and transferring money to an account in Crimea is difficult. Visa debit and credit cards also do not work here, though Mastercard does.
Kamarzaev the musician, however, added that Crimeans, like rest of the world, are hopeful.
“Like everyone on the planet, we are hopeful the future will be less cloudy than yesterday,” he said.
(Anjali Ojha was in Crimea at the invitation of the India-based Russian Information Centre. She can be contacted at email@example.com)