Dispatch

Putin Is My Sugar Daddy

The angry pensioners of Simferopol would rather have Russian dictatorship than European democracy.

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — The statue of Lenin, facing Maxim Gorky Street in downtown Simferopol, stands proudly on a red marble plinth. A large basket of fresh red carnations lie at the base -- taped above, a handmade poster reminds passers-by: "Don't touch our leader."

The weather is rainy and cold, but it hasn't stopped a small crowd of pro-Russian protesters, who have gathered for a rally in defense of the statue, which, rumor has it, "the fascist scum" from Kiev plans to topple soon. Some people are waving red Soviet flags; others hold up cardboard signs that say, "Thank you, Putin" and "NATO, keep your hands off Crimea." In the middle of the crowd, an old man with wild blue eyes is holding forth.

"I feel nothing but warmth for the Russian army," he says, punctuating his words with a raised fist. "If the Russian tanks come here, we'll welcome them. Putin is a dictator, yes, but let me tell you: I'd like to live under the wing of this dictator. He is smart and strong. Pensioners live well under him."

The crowd -- consisting of mostly elderly men and women of Crimea -- bursts into cheers. They shout the usual Russian-media talking points about the rising wave of fascism, the danger of homosexuality, and the Western press, but it does not take long for their true fears to come out about how they will be treated by a Kiev that will lean toward the West.

"They threaten us that they won't give us gas, electricity, water. Why is that? What are we to do?" asks Antonida Ivanova, a 75-year-old pensioner.

The current crisis in Crimea -- and in all of Ukraine -- is usually framed as a conflict between the Ukrainian majority living in the west of the country and the Russian ethnic minority in the east and south. But the streets of Simferopol offer a case study of another, more visible division between those who have managed to secure steady employment and a future, and the many others left behind in the ruthless transition to free-markets and democracy -- barely able to pay the monthly bills, barely surviving.

For the unemployed and pensioners in Crimea's capital , the democratic political system that replaced the totalitarian one has brought nothing but misery and poverty -- the disintegration of their values and communities. The Soviet Union may not have allowed much freedom, the thinking goes, but at least there was food on the table, jobs, security, social benefits. In that sense, the fight in Crimea is not so much about a Russian future, but about a longing for the securities provided during a Soviet past.

"All Ukrainian governments since 1991 destroyed the agriculture of our country, our whole industry," says Nikolay Dmitrievich, a 65-year-old Russian-speaking pensioner. "Now America says they'll help us with $1 billion, but we need to raise prices for communal services, while cutting salaries and pensions. What happens with us then? Even now we can barely survive with what we get. Do you call this help?"

For many Russian-speakers in Crimea, Russia may not be necessarily a fatherland they dearly love, as much as a sugar daddy they desperately need -- one that provides cheap gas, endless streams of money to prop up the dilapidated, energy-inefficient economy, and one that keeps the prices of community services like phone, water, and electricity at least somewhat affordable. For all the talk of minority rights and Crimean autonomy, in interviews, many of the residents here are just as quick to change the subject to poverty and their own dire situations, to which they feel "the West" -- often conflating both western Ukraine and Western Europe -- can provide no answers.

Even those on the other side of this divide see the split as less about questions of identity than about economics.

"In the final run, it's about social problems, but politicians try to distract us with less important questions like what language to speak, what to believe in, who to talk to, instead of letting us focus on practical problems," says Alina Teslenko, a 27-year-old psychologist from Simferopol. Ethnically Russian, Teslenko  supported the protests against Victor Yanukovych and, staunchly opposes the secession of Crimea. "What is Simferopol?" she asks. "A city with broken, dirty streets. But people seem not to care and argue about unimportant matters. Propaganda is a scary thing."

Amid these dirty streets stands a tiny gazebo tent draped in the Russian tricolor flag, with a map of Crimea in the middle and big red letters along the bottom that read: "Russian Crimea." Inside the tent, huddled behind a tiny table, are two people who look to be in their 30s. A signup sheet lies in front of them: "Sign up for the People's Resistance Regiment!"

"We are forming self-defense units to help the Russian Army carry out its duties," says recruiter Boris Kozar, a journalist and a jeweler from Simferopol. With his wide smile, bright eyes, and well-trimmed stubble, he could just as well be working, selling wedding rings and diamond-encrusted tiaras. "We help patrol the streets, guard important facilities and provide security from provocations. We'll stop any groups that try to oppose our independence." When asked if he and the other recruiters supply weapons to the recruits, he says: "We don't give out weapons ... yet."

It's an otherwise quiet day for Kozar: Though the streets are full of busy shoppers, few pedestrians approach the tent. In the course of 15 minutes, the only ones who stop by to look briefly at the signup sheet are older Russian ladies, babushkas in their 60s and 70s. One of them, Anna Masolitina, finally musters the courage to sign up.

"We want to build our own country, find our own way. We should turn our eyes to the East, not to the West," says the new recruit. Dressed humbly in a pink down jacket and wool skirt, she looks no different than the millions of other pensioners in any of the countries of the former Soviet Union. Decades after the fall of communism, they still look to the east, nostalgic for a past long gone.  

This project is funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Photos: Boryana Katsarova

Dispatch

How Qatar Lost the Middle East

The oil-rich emirate once was heralded as the Arab world's rising power. Now, its neighbors are pressuring it to take a back seat role.

ABU DHABI — "The good times are over," a Doha-based diplomat told me glumly last week, as if foretelling the political earthquake about to hit Qatar.

On March 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain announced in a joint statement that they were withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha -- a move that escalates their long-running feud with the tiny, gas-rich emirate to its most fraught point in recent memory. Qatar, the countries said, had failed to live up to its pledges made in a November meeting in Riyadh not to interfere in other Gulf countries' affairs, not to support groups threatening regional stability, and not to host "hostile media" -- a likely reference to programming on the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera network.

The moves follow three years of growing tensions between Qatar and other Arab Gulf countries about how to cope with the Muslim Brotherhood's influence. Doha championed the Muslim Brotherhood's rise to power in Egypt, supported its influence within the Syrian opposition, and provided hundreds of millions of dollars to its Palestinian affiliate, Hamas. Saudi Arabia and its allies, meanwhile, have long seen the organization as a competitor for Islamist legitimacy, and supported its rivals throughout the Arab world.

The Gulf states' diplomatic maneuver also tops a spectacular fall from grace for Qatar, which not long ago was hailed as an unlikely leading power in the Middle East. Over the last year, Qatar's allies have steadily lost ground: Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who could frequently be spotted in Doha's hotel lobbies sipping tea and meeting diplomats, were jailed. In the summer of 2013, Saudi Arabia also took a leadership role in the Syrian uprising, usurping Qatar's role as the primary financer and political backer of the opposition.

"Qatar took a step back with the Syrian opposition," says one Doha-based opposition member. "Politically, it is in the back seat -- or maybe not even in the car."

But what seems to have angered Qatar's neighbors most is Doha's persistent attempts to regain the political initiative in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood has suffered setbacks across the region, but they still have a friend in Qatar.

Doha has been trying "very actively to repair and maintain relations with Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia," says Gerd Nonneman, dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar. "But they are not going to compromise their view of what's right and proper, or effective, just to get into the good books of the rest of the Gulf."

Wednesday's decision followed a meeting of Gulf foreign ministers late Tuesday, which newspapers described as "stormy." It's not clear what the exact trigger for the diplomatic action could have been, though one possible irritant may have been the Qatari foreign minister's trip to Iran in late February. Speaking from Tehran, the Qatari official suggested that Tehran could play a role in political talks to end the Syrian crisis -- a notion sharply rejected in Riyadh. Inter-Gulf relations have been particularly difficult since last summer. Setbacks in Qatar's foreign policy coincided with the June inauguration of a new Qatari emir, the 33-year-old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who came into office vowing to focus on domestic affairs. Doha's once-busy conference halls may have quieted, but many in the Gulf believe Qatar has continued to quietly support Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and hardline Syrian Islamist groups.

Most annoying to Gulf states has been Brotherhood-linked Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a longtime exile with Qatari citizenship and a hugely popular weekly show on Al Jazeera's Arabic channel. Qaradawi has denounced other Gulf countries' support for the military-backed government in Egypt, going as far as to say in January that the UAE was opposed to Islamic rule. After attempting unsuccessfully to resolve matters quietly, Abu Dhabi summoned the Qatari ambassador on Feb. 2 in protest.

Qaradawi is also a wanted man in Cairo, though Doha has declined to comply with Egyptian requests for his extradition. Qatar has insisted that Qaradawi is an independent citizen and that he doesn't represent Doha's foreign policy. But his prominence in Qatari intellectual circles and on Al Jazeera has led many to believe otherwise. Even beyond Qaradawi, Al Jazeera's Arabic channel has consistently provided pro-Brotherhood figures with a pulpit from which to condemn the military coup in Cairo. Egypt has responded by jailing nine Al Jazeera staff members, accusing them of supporting the Brotherhood.

Qatar's perceived support of the Muslim Brotherhood has also not gone over well with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which view the organization as a subversive threat that could seek to overthrow the Gulf's ruling monarchies. Both countries, as well as Kuwait, have rushed to aid the post-Brotherhood Egypt, offering a combined $12 billion in aid to the new military-backed government. At home, the UAE has brought dozens of alleged Brotherhood members to trial, including Emirati, Qatari, and Egyptian citizens.

Tension between Qatar's new emir and his fellow Gulf leaders had been rising for months before Wednesday's announcement. The pledges Qatar is accused of breaking were made during a meeting in Riyadh in November 2013, and relate to the implementation of a 2012 Gulf Security Agreement that stipulates all members must refrain from interference in fellow signatories' internal affairs. The agreement was seen as a pre-emptive reaction to turmoil elsewhere in the Middle East, following the uprisings of the Arab Spring -- but fellow Gulf countries accuse Doha of failing to put the policies into action.

Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah sat between the Qatari and Saudi leaders, reviving a role he has often played to mediate disputes among Gulf brethren. Apparently not trusting the discussion alone to alleviate tensions, the Qatari emir was asked to put his promises on paper. "The three countries had hoped" that the pledges would "be put into effect by the State of Qatar if signed," Wednesday's joint statement reads.

After that initial gathering, Gulf countries held at least two more meetings in an attempt to convince Qatar to change its ways. On Feb. 17, the three countries asked their foreign ministers to "clarify the seriousness of the matter" to Qatar, the statement says. Meeting in Kuwait, the countries agreed on a mechanism to implement Qatar's promises. But arguing nothing has changed since, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain now say they will have to "start taking whatever they deem appropriate to protect their security and stability by withdrawing their ambassadors."

Qatar's cabinet reacted with "regret and surprise" to the ambassadors' withdrawal, a statement from the official news agency said. Doha also announced that it will not withdraw its own ambassadors and is "absolutely keen on brotherly ties."

The next move is Qatar's. Back in 2002, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Doha in anger over Al Jazeera's coverage; it took half a decade and savvy maneuvering to restore relations. Even if Doha is finally out of the international spotlight, its trickiest diplomacy may lie ahead.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images