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Re-Education, 'Extremists,' and Blackouts: Inside Crimea One Year After Russian Annexation

VICE News traveled to Crimea for the anniversary of the Kremlin's takeover of the peninsula. We found choreographed celebration but also many concerns, as problems there begin to mount.

by Alec Luhn
Mar 18 2015, 12:40pm

Photo by Mikhail Mordasov/AP

Wet snow clumped on the foggy windows of the beat-up white hatchback as human rights monitor Alexandra Krylova anxiously waited near the interior ministry's anti-extremism center in Simferopol, Crimea.

After more than 30 minutes, pro-Ukrainian activist Veldar Shukurdzhiyev came out of the unmarked building holding a "warning" against extremist activities signed by the deputy city prosecutor. 

Shukurdzhiyev told VICE News that after inviting him in for a "chat," the agents of the anti-extremism center, a Russian law enforcement agency that has been previously accused of serving as an "instrument to control the political opposition," tried to make him sign the warning. As he spoke, Shukurdzhiyev placed a mini Ukrainian flag back on the dashboard.

"This [letter] has no relationship to the law at all," he said, arguing that it was meant as a scare tactic. Shukurdzhiyev and other activists opposed to Crimea's annexation by Russia have been under surveillance and their phone calls monitored, he added. "I'm planning to leave," he then admitted. "They mess with me constantly. They don't give me any peace."

Crimea's leadership and hundreds of locals came out for a patriotic interpretive dance performed by hundreds of schoolkids in Simferopol on Monday, kicking off a week of celebrations to mark the one-year anniversary of the Kremlin's takeover of the largely Russian-speaking peninsula. While the majority of residents say they're overjoyed to once again be under Moscow's rule, there's a darker side to the wave of patriotic education and pro-Russian celebration. One of Crimea's last remaining independent television channels faces closure, and the few who speak out against annexation face intimidation, arrests, and even disappearances.

Related: Russia Says It Could Put Nukes in Crimea, And They Might Already Be There. Read more here.

The extremism warning given to Shukurdzhiyev follows a court case last week in which he and two other activists were sentenced to 40 hours of corrective labor for displaying Ukrainian flags and the slogan "Crimea is Ukraine" at a small celebration of the 201st birthday of poet Taras Shevchenko. Although Shevchenko is regarded as the father of modern Ukrainian literature and even language, the judge ruled the activists had violated a law on demonstrations, arguing that the Ukrainian flag had not been appropriate because the Russian empire ruled Ukraine during Shevchenko's life.

Crimean Tatars, the mostly Muslim ethnic group that was exiled to Central Asia during the Soviet era and who have largely opposed Russian rule, also have suffered arrests and disappearances, and their television channel faces closure. They make up around 13 percent of the peninsula's population.

"This is the method of political dialogue. Such detainments and arrests are unjustified," Krylova, a member of the Crimean Human Rights Field Mission started by Russian and Ukrainian human rights organizations in March 2014, told VICE News. In its monthly report for February, the field mission said law enforcement had made little progress in investigating the murders last spring of a Crimean Tatar activist, a Ukrainian officer, and a student from mainland Ukraine. In addition, nine people remain missing since annexation, including Crimean Tatar activists and ethnic Ukrainians reported to have been abducted.

More than 95 percent of participants reportedly voted to join Russia in a referendum held after unmarked Russian troops took over key infrastructure in Crimea. Although the vote was boycotted by opponents and lambasted by other governments, the majority of Crimeans remain supportive of Russian rule. 

'A particular emphasis has been placed on the youth.'

Two independent surveys this year found that 80 percent and 84 percent of respondents supported annexation. (More than 20,000 Crimean residents have left and moved to Ukraine since Russia took over the peninsula, the Ukrainian president's representative office in Crimea, which itself has moved to the mainland, claimed earlier in March.)

But problems are beginning to mount after the US and Europe announced embargoes on the peninsula and Ukraine cut off transportation and electricity supplies in December. In the latest of a series of blackouts, 18,000 people were left without power on Tuesday. A crocodile at a local zoo even died from the cold during the largest power outage over the New Year.

Many residents shrug such inconveniences off, arguing they're only temporary. Nonetheless, the Moscow-backed authorities have been going to great lengths to inculcate patriotic feelings and stem any dissent. In speeches on Monday, local officials claimed that Russia had "saved" Crimea from the terrors of Ukrainian nationalism.

A particular emphasis has been placed on the youth. At a flash mob on Monday, more than 300 students dressed in the national colors chanted "Russia! Russia!" and assembled themselves into a huge map of the country. That morning, Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov taught a lesson called "Russia and Crimea: Shared Fate" at a school in Simferopol, with five other schools joining in by video link.

Related: Crimeans celebrate annexation with patriotic flash mob and Soviet nostalgia. Read more here.

Since September 1, 2014, students have been studying history with new textbooks that take a kinder view of Joseph Stalin and past governments in Moscow, according to Leonid Kuzmin, a history teacher who was one of the three activists sentenced to corrective labor after the Shevchenko celebration. Kuzmin said the textbook makes no mention of the Holodomor, a famine in which millions of Ukrainians died as a result of the policies of the Soviet leadership. He added that Kievan Rus, an historic East Slavic state from the late ninth to the mid-13th century, is often referred to as the "Russian state," and sections on World War II are politicized to promote a "victory cult."

"I felt like I was saying something that wasn't quite right, that what was written there wasn't quite right," Kuzmin said. "With my class, I taught the parts I didn't agree with in my own way. I told them right away that history is a subject affected by politics."

But Kuzmin was fired from his teaching job after the court case against him and denounced as a "provocateur" by the school administration, he said.

On his way to meet with VICE News, Kuzmin said he was detained by police and driven around the city for an hour while they questioned him on the whereabouts of the third activist, Alexander Kravchenko, who has fled to Ukraine.

'There's no freedom of speech, freedom of the press or freedom of assembly.'

Meanwhile, the independent television channel ATR, which broadcasts Ukrainian and Russian in Crimean Tatar, could be closed on April 1 if it fails to re-register with Russia's communications oversight agency. Its registration documents have already been rejected four times for alleged errors, ATR director Shevket Memetov told VICE News, arguing that the channel's coverage of some of the problems under Russian rule have angered local authorities. 

According to Memetov, officials from the internal politics, information and communications ministry have forbid it from showing the two top Crimean Tatar leaders, who have been banned from Crimea by Russian courts.

"We cover the news, but they tell us to show leaders and deputies, to show what the authorities are doing so that people get used to a Russian Crimea," Memetov said. "There's no freedom of speech, freedom of the press or freedom of assembly."

Law enforcement officials have conducted searches of numerous Crimean Tatar homes looking for "extremist" literature in recent months and made several arrests on charges that human rights advocates say are politicized. Three Tatars who were at the parliament building during clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protestors there on February 26, 2014 have been charged with inciting mass riots, and another has been charged with organizing mass riots. Five more have been arrested and accused of injuring police officers after they took part in a march to the Ukrainian border to meet banned leader Mustafa Dzhemilev.

Krylova said all these charges are unsubstantiated, noting that the Russian law on mass riots was not in place on February 26, 2014 and that the armed men who attempted to stop the march to the border were largely not members of recognized law enforcement organs.

In addition, three Crimean Tatars who were detained in January in Sevastopol on suspicion of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamic organization that is banned in Russia, could face up to life in prison. Their lawyer has argued that if they are convicted, "any Muslim inconvenient for the authorities could be accused of terrorism."

Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn