The question hung in the air for a long moment, with none of the dozen men gathered for lunch at the Mahmud Sami Efendi mosque offering a quick answer: what would they do if their nightmare came true, and Crimea joined the Russian Federation this week?
Finally, Mustafa Mustafayef, a member of the local city council, spoke. “We just hope that this will not happen,” he said, even as votes were being cast all over Crimea on Sunday in favour of union with Russia. “I really don’t think that this will happen,” Mr. Mustafayef repeated.
But it is happening. According to official results released Monday, a whopping 96.8 per cent of Crimeans voted in favour of union with Russia (the other option on the ballot was mere de facto independence from Ukraine), with turnout reported to be over 80 per cent.
On Monday, the Crimean parliament moved quickly to tighten its bonds with Russia, declaring the Russian ruble would now be an accepted currency on the peninsula, which on April 1 – in a moment of great symbolism – will switch to Moscow’s time zone.
The referendum result is being celebrated in Crimea and Moscow as paving the way for an historic reunion, and slammed in Kiev and Western capitals as illegitimate.
Nowhere is there as much dread about what happens next as among this peninsula’s 250,000 Crimean Tatars, a predominantly Muslim and Turkic-speaking population that suffered for two centuries under Russian rule before joyously joining an independent Ukraine when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.
“Don’t put us in the Soviet camp!” screamed a front-page headline in a newspaper published this week by the Mejlis, the main Crimean Tatar political organization.
The Mejlis called for a mass boycott of Sunday’s referendum, an effort that appeared to have partially worked, with low turnout apparent in Crimean Tatars areas.
It wasn’t a complete success, however. Mr. Mustafayef said some Crimean Tatars with government jobs had cast ballots after being warned they could lose their jobs if they obeyed the Mejlis’ call for a boycott.
Almost every adult Crimean Tatar has a personal story about persecution and exile under Soviet rule. Uncertain of their loyalty during the Second World War, Josef Stalin deported the entire population in 1944 from the craggy hills of Crimea to the faraway steppes of Siberia and Central Asia.
Of the men gathered for lunch at the mosque, all but one was born in Uzbekistan, another former Soviet republic that hosted most of the Crimean Tatar population before they were finally allowed to return home in the last days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule.
“When we moved back here, there were no connections, no gas, no water, no electricity…. But our people are very hardworking, so we started to build,” said Elmira Ablayeva, a 65-year-old mother of three who lives a short walk up a dirt path from the Mahmud Sami Efendi mosque. Livestock roam the bumpy field outside the still-incomplete home she has been building since 1995.
If the Crimean Tatars have not prospered economically in Ukraine, they nonetheless revel in the fact that they have been reunited as a community in the land of their ancestors.
They fear that a return to Russian rule would be followed by fresh persecution – many cite the violence in Muslim-populated areas of Russia like Chechnya and Dagestan – or perhaps even another deportation.
In an effort to calm such fears, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Mustafa Dzhemilev, a former leader of the Mejlis, last week to express his sympathy at the historic suffering of the Crimean Tatars and to promise financial help after Crimea joins Russia. The Moscow-backed Crimean government has declared that Russian and Tatar (but not Ukrainian) will be the official languages of the peninsula following Sunday’s referendum.
But such gestures haven’t been able to erase centuries of hard feelings. The day after Mr. Putin placed his call to Mr. Dzhemilev, another senior Mejlis figure told The Globe and Mail that he hoped the NATO alliance would intervene militarily to keep Crimea from being annexed to Russia.
Ali Khamzin, head of foreign relations for the Mejlis, also said that while the organization was committed to non-violence, he worried that “young hotheads” would take matters into their own hands and fight against Russian rule. “If people are violently provoked, we can’t control the reaction to that.”
Already there are local “self-defence” committees watching the streets of Bakhchysarai, unarmed but organized, waiting for a signal from the Mejlis – or the government in Kiev, which they say they remain loyal to – about what to do next.
“When the deportation happened, all our men were at war, so [the Soviets] didn’t meet any resistance. Now all our young men are here, and of course they will resist,” said Ms. Ablayeva. “Right now [the self-defence forces] have no weapons, but look at their eyes. They have a very decisive look.”
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