The Black Sea peninsula is experiencing purges, propaganda drives and plummeting living standards as it becomes a toxic geopolitical battleground.
KYIV –– Several masked men knocked on the door of Olga Pavlenko’s apartment in Simferopol, annexed Crimea’s administrative capital, on an early August morning last year, yelling that her pipes had leaked and flooded the neighbours.
But Pavlenko, who headed the Ukrainian Culture Center, an NGO that published a newspaper critical of pro-Russian authorities and helped the families of arrested and jailed anti-Russian activists, knew the men were security officers.
“We all know that if there is a knock on your door at 6am, it’s them,” Pavlenko told TRT World.
Before they began to break down the door, she called her friends and lawyer. During the search, the officers found her poem lambasting the 2014 annexation – and told her that it alone was enough for extremism charges. Luckily for Pavlenko, the search took place on a Friday – and she snuck out of Crimea before a court could sanction her arrest the next Monday.
“Of course, I would have been in jail otherwise,” she said in a telephone interview from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson where she now lives.
On March 16 2014, Moscow held a ‘referendum’ that has not been recognised by Ukraine or the West, but legitimised the Kremlin’s push to make Crimea part of Russia.
Instead, the Black Sea peninsula has become a geopolitical battleground where Russia’s current problems – purges, propaganda and plummeting living standards – evolve in an exaggerated, more toxic form, observers say.
“Crimea has become a worse version of Russia,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said in early March.
Average Crimeans are urged to report anyone suspected of pro-Ukrainian sympathies – Pavlenko’s own father and sister sent multiple complaints about how she allegedly hid weapons and drugs in her apartment.
Critics face questioning, dismissals, detention and attacks, rights groups say. Those who persist and don’t flee, face Kremlin-orchestrated trials and jail – like filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who was sentenced to 20 years in 2015 for ‘plotting a terrorist attack’.
Ukraine’s top rights official Lyudmila Denisova said that 34 Ukrainian nationals are illegally detained in Crimean jails, and another 35 are jailed in Russia. Their supporters get in trouble too, because nothing is sacred to Kremlin proxies anymore.
On March 3, the Ukrainian Orthodox Archbishop Kliment tried to visit Pavlo Hrib, a 20-year-old man awaiting trial on terrorism charges. But police detained the white-bearded cleric accusing him of “stealing” his own attire and “cursing in public”.
Since 2014, 12 people in Crimea have gone missing, with one of them found dead.
Reshat Ametov, a 39-year-old anti-Russian protester and father of three, was abducted by pro-Russian paramilitaries shortly before the 2014 ‘referendum’. His body – covered in cuts, with his eyes taken out and head wrapped in plastic – was discovered next to a pair of handcuffs in a desolate village.
Most of the missing men are Tatars. The Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnicity that dominated Crimea before czarist Russia’s conquest in 1778, resisted the annexation non-violently and has been “disproportionately affected” by pressure, the UN said.
Some of the missing Tatars were pro-Ukrainian activists, some observant Muslims, some had no political or religious affiliations and were kidnapped simply to terrorise their community, rights activist Abdureshit Jepparov claimed.
“Special services and police do [the kidnappings], and investigators cover them up,” the bearded and bespectacled man told this reporter in 2016 in his empty, unfinished house in the village of Sary Su, more than two years after his son Islyam and nephew Jevdet Islyamov were abducted by several men in uniform.
They have not been seen or heard of again.
Hundreds more Tatars have been arrested, interrogated and had their houses searched by armed security officers who often stormed in at dawn, frightening women and children, activists say.
“The anti-Tatar hysteria goes on,” Zair Smedlyaev, a member of the Mejlis, a Tatar parliament Russia banned as ‘extremist’, told TRT World.
Meanwhile, Russian propaganda targets young Crimeans.
From a textbook released in February, children learn that the entire Tatar community ‘collaborated’ with invading German Nazis. And after dictator Joseph Stalin deported them all – along with 20 other ethnic groups – to Central Asia in 1944, they were given subsidies, foodstuffs and construction materials, the textbook claims.
It doesn’t mention, though, that up to a half of Tatars died of starvation and diseases, according to historians and declassified Soviet archives.
Children are taken to military bases, march in parades wearing WWII uniforms, learn how to handle Ak-47s, and watch propaganda flicks about separatist ‘heroes’ in southeastern Ukraine.
“Children are very interested, and they gladly join the ranks” of more than 20 youth organisations, education official Andrey Shparyov said in 2017.
Adults face bigger problems.
After the annexation, Moscow raised salaries and pensions, and invested billions of dollars in infrastructure projects, military bases and a mammoth bridge to Russia.
"These were five years of victories," Crimea’s pro-Moscow head Sergey Aksyonov said in late February. “Even our enemies have to admit our success.”
But inflation and Ukraine’s trade blockade sent prices skyrocketing, while corruption stalled most of the projects. Russian companies can’t operate in Crimea because of Western sanctions, and rely on intermediaries whose services boost costs.
Ukraine said that some 4,000 properties in Crimea were seized by pro-Moscow officials, and thousands more were destroyed, mostly next to beaches, the main source of revenue in subtropical southern Crimea.
One such property was Alexander Strekalin’s beachfront café in the city of Yalta. The 75-year-old owner immolated himself in September 2016 while it was being demolished.
“He died because of these animals,” his widow Mila Selyamiyeva told TRT World.
Some businessmen claim that corrupt officials extort bribes and wrestle control of businesses.
“Many think about leaving Crimea because it is simply impossible to work with [pro-Russian] authorities,” Oleg Zubkov, who owns two tiger zoos that attract tens of thousands of visitors a year, told RFE/RL in February. “They tried to close down, seize and nationalise my projects in the past five years, and this fight is far from over.”
In 2014, Zubkov welcomed the annexation and said this tigers “would help” Russian servicemen. Five years and more than 300 court hearings later, he is selling his assets and moving to Portugal.