Crimea is quickly turning into a hostile conflict zone for reporters, activists, human rights workers, and anyone who is not openly sided with the Russian government.
While the referendum on joining Russia will be held on March 16, the peninsula has been flooded recently with armed groups, including masked paramilitaries, Cossack groups, and Serbian war veterans, taking advantage of the region’s security vacuum to spread fear and pro-Russian fervor.
On Sunday, an Automaidan spokesperson reported that unidentified gunmen had detained one female Ukrainian journalist and two female activists at the Crimean border near the northern city of Armyansk. They have not been heard from since.
Radio Free Europe named the missing women as Olena Maksymenko, a reporter for Ukrainian Week, independent blogger Oleksanda Ryazantseva, and Automaidan's Kateryna Butko. Automaidan is a movement within Euromaidan, predominantly made up of protesting drivers.
VICE News also ran into trouble in the region. During the making of our latest documentary, reporter Simon Ostrovsky and his team were manhandled by members of the notorious, and now disbanded, Berkut riot police force.
The men threatened to shoot them and made a VICE News cameraman erase his footage, but the team got away safely.
Other reports claimed that two prominent Ukrainian activists who work in Crimea — Andriy Shchekun and Anatoly Kovalsky – are also missing after they were abducted at Simferopol train station on Sunday.
On Friday, Dimiter Kenarov, a Bulgarian freelance journalist, said he had a gun pointed to his head outside a TV studio in Simferopol after he took pictures of masked gunmen carrying studio equipment out of the building.
“One of the masked men came up to me, threw me on the ground, put a gun to my head and took my phone and my friend’s camera,” he said. “It’s war situation here almost. There is no law currently.”
Kenarov said that the gunmen then got into a van with no license plates and drove off.
In Sebastopol, pro-Russian activists and Cossacks attacked a group of Ukrainians, Reuters reported on Sunday. There are also testimonies of harassment of Muslim Tartars, a Crimean minority accused by Russia's supporters of siding with Ukraine.
Amnesty International (AI) issued a statement on Friday, stating that attacks in the region are intensifying.
“Attempting to monitor the human rights situation in Crimea has become a near impossible task,” said John Dalhuisen, AI’s Europe and Central Asia Director. “Self-styled Crimean self-defense groups are harassing pro-Ukrainian protesters, journalists, and human rights monitors with complete impunity.”
But Sergei Aksenov, Crimean prime minister since February 27 when pro-Russian politicians seized the regional parliament, backed up Moscow’s claims that there is no cause for concern, denying that there are problems with the security situation in the region.
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"All military units that are present illegally in the autonomous republic of Crimea, all entry points into Crimea and the airport are under control,” he said in an interview with Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency on Monday."We have regained control of all security agencies, replaced all managers who are not loyal to Crimea, the self-defense units fulfilled the role of a moderator, and all military bases are under control."
At the same time, Aksenov could not confirm exactly many troops are present in Crimea, saying an earlier figure of 10,000 men is probably “outdated.”
The outcome of Sunday’s referendum is widely expected to be in Russia’s favor. Moscow has offered huge financial incentives and unleashed an information war, distributing leaflets, posters, and organizing concerts with Russian pop stars to drum up support among the predominantly Russian population. The only television accessible in Crimea is state-approved, Russian TV.
"The referendum will be transparent, there will be no problems with granting access to voting monitors,” Aksenov said. “The only ones who would not be allowed are those who falsify information."
Russia pledged $1.1 billion in financial assistance if Crimea votes in favor of joining Russia. According to Aksenov, Crimean authorities promised $22 million a year in aid to the Tartars alone.
“Nobody is attacking anyone, the majority of people lead normal lives,” Aksenov said. “Those who are coming here to turn everything upside down, we don’t want to see them here.”