'I Have Decided to Stay Here and Protest Until I Die'

The last stand of Crimea’s pro-Ukraine movement.

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Suspended in the Black Sea by a narrow strip of land, Crimea -- with waves lapping its shores -- often seems more like an island than a peninsula. In fact, locals tend to refer to the rest of Ukraine as materik, or mainland. Instead of Ukraine's endless plains, there are real mountains here; instead of freezing winter temperatures, there are often balmy skies. The history of the place, the temperament of the people, even the cuisine: everything is different. For those few activists still fighting for a united Ukraine here, Kiev -- an hour-and-a-half flight from Crimea -- can feel a million miles away.

The pro-Ukrainian rallies were never a popular affair in this predominantly Russian part of the country. Even at the height of the Euromaidan protests in Kiev in early December when tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands marched in the streets against the government of Viktor Yanukovych -- in Crimea there was only the din of a far-away battle. When there were protests here, often only a few hundred people participated. As the situation in Crimea quickly devolved, after Yanukovych's ouster and the calls for Crimea's secession become more strident, about 5,000 Crimean Tatars -- the region's most fervently pro-European group -- blocked the local parliament building on Feb. 26 and clashed with pro-Russian supporters. But that remains the single greatest burst of Euromaidan enthusiasm to date. Afterward, fearing escalation and potential civil war, Tatar leader Refat Chubarov called on his people to stay home to avoid further provocation.

Emotional pro-Ukrainian rallies still occur in Crimea, but they are small and isolated: groups of friends and friends of friends huddling together for warmth and security. To minimize the chances of direct confrontation with the many pro-Russian militant supporters roaming the streets (often, with wooden clubs sticking out of their backpacks), Crimea's Euromaidan activists usually try to steer clear of the central urban areas. Last week, a protest in the region's capital Simferopol took place near the edge of town, in Shevchenko Park, by the bust of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine's national poet. Young professionals and the regional capital's more educated elite, who tend to be the most pro-European, nervously waved sky-blue Tatar flags, blue-and-yellow Ukrainian ones, while their children carried blue and yellow balloons. A few people held hand-made posters calling for peace and unity, a few chanted "Glory to Ukraine," and "Russian soldiers, go home." Then everyone joined in singing, several times over, the Ukrainian national anthem, their voices often drowned out by the constant roar from a nearby boulevard.

The protesters hardly numbered 200, but included a smattering of ethnic groups: Ukrainians, Russians, Tatars, Jews, and Armenians. Though united in their cause, the event was a far cry from Kiev's Maidan, which brought down a president and changed the course of contemporary European history. An air of despondency and doom pervades Crimea's pro-Ukrainian protests, which feel like the last stand of a people who know, deep inside, they have already lost.

"Our rally is small and probably could not do much, and I don't believe things in Crimea will end well," said Nikita Levintsov, a 25-year-old computer specialist and a Jewish native of Simferopol. "But I stand here anyway."

These tiny gatherings of peaceful pro-Ukrainian sentiment threaten to disappear under a steadily rising tide of Russian nationalism. According to a 2001 census, about 58 percent of Crimea's 2 million residents are ethnic Russians, while Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars comprise 24 percent and 12 percent of the population, respectively.

During a weekend in early March, a pro-Russian secessionist rally numbered in the thousands of people; dozens of buses had brought in supporters to Simferopol from all over Crimea; on a stage built in the middle of the central square by the statue of Lenin, a military band, as well as famous local singers and dance troupes entertained the audience for hours. Phalanxes of Russian and Crimean tricolors fluttered in the wind. Amid all this, the defenders of Ukrainian unity in Crimea look overwhelmed. And it seems that their efforts are for naught: Pro-Russian supporters say that they haven't even noticed them.

"There's no division in Crimea," said Sergei Kuznitzov, a 45-year-old participant in one of this weekend's secessionist rallies in Simferopol. "Everything is just fine, there are no problems."

The small pro-Ukrainian, pro-European rallies remain peaceful and open, for now, though at the Shevchenko Park gathering, about two dozen stern-looking young men in black clothes, army fatigues, and red armbands -- the marks of the Russian "self-defense units" -- stood on the sides of the park alleys, watching the developments. And even though the Crimean Tatars are largely keeping off the streets, limiting their show of resistance to a boycott of a scheduled March 16 referendum on joining Russia, they have already organized their own self-defense units, ready to fight back at a moment's notice.

Crimean Tatars were subjected to massive repression under Stalin, when the entire Tatar population on the peninsula was forcefully deported to Central Asia and nearly half of them perished, so their resistance to Russia rule here runs deep. It is the reason why, despite the call to remain home, some Tatars -- women, in particular -- do take active part in the rallies. "If we don't come out in the streets today to protest, they may come to our homes and deal with us as they see fit later," said Vasfiye Mamutova, an economist by training, now a pensioner. "People are scared and think things would get solved out by themselves. But if you don't take care of politics, politics will take care of you."

The smell of fear is everywhere in Crimea these days, a sinking feeling in the stomach that tells one things could go terribly wrong, terribly fast. The ever-rising number of men in army fatigues in the streets, the dark shine of automatic weapons, the deliberate military step, the fanatical sparkle in the eye: all of these portend something that nobody even wants to imagine.

Members of the Crimean Euromaidan have already experienced first-hand harassment and attacks, according to interviews with activists. In the past weeks, two of their cars were damaged; somebody spilled gasoline in their main office; their faces and names have been plastered in places of prominence as "Crimean traitors;" and on March 9 two of their leading figures, Andrei Shekun and Anatoliy Kowalski, were reportedly taken in by paramilitaries -- they've yet to be released.

In the meantime, many pro-Ukrainian TV stations have been forced off the air. Although life on the surface still appears normal in the capital Simferopol, the rule of law has very nearly dissolved. Even the police force in Simferopol often shirks its duty to keep order, standing passively on the sidelines as paramilitaries and self-defense units openly patrol public spaces, waiting to see how events turn out and who they will answer to next. The city feels increasingly run by the strong and the armed. How long the pro-Ukrainian protesters will go on unimpeded is hard to tell.

But options for those who don't want to see a Russian Crimea are running out. The forces dragging Crimea eastward toward an uncertain future are too strong to be overcome by a group of some 200 protesters, or even groups of well-organized Tatars. There is a feeling here that the outside world -- the United States, the European Union, NATO -- has already tacitly accepted the loss of Crimea, and that their fate as future Russians is sealed.

During a recent pro-Ukrainian rally, Zinaida Kalnikova, a 77-year-old resident of Simferopol and a devoted pro-unity protester, who remembered the horrors of World War II, suddenly burst into tears. "I don't know what will happen. Blood could be spilled. I have four grandchildren, do you understand? I have decided to stay here and protest until I die."

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

Photos: Boryana Katsarova


Speak Ill of the Dead

A year after his death, Hugo Chávez is still wrecking Venezuela. Why won’t his opponents just say it?

The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has proved as divisive in death as he was in life. At a military parade in central Caracas commemorating the one-year anniversary of his passing on March 5, thousands of marchers -- both soldiers and civilians -- paid their respects to the country's "Eternal Commander." Before a crowd that included Chávez's successor, Nicolas Maduro, Cuba's Raúl Castro, and Bolivian President Evo Morales, Chávista Venezuela was on display.

Beneficiaries of the late Venezuelan president's various social programs waltzed by in carefully choreographed groups, smiling and singing while dressed in bright red, the color of the revolution. Billions of dollars worth of new arms from Russia and China were also paraded through, along with units of the country's National Guard, decked out in anti-riot gear, and informal "people's militias." To honor the late president, Maduro even unveiled a new insignia for the armed forces featuring Chávez's likeness.

"Chávez was the great protector of the people," Maduro intoned before the parade began. "There never existed a leader who would love the country like he did, and who would respect the poor."

Only blocks away, however, opponents of Chávez and Maduro showcased a different Venezuela, continuing spirited anti-government protests that have rocked the country since Feb. 2. Residents of the middle class neighborhood of Chacao woke up on Wednesday to find an effigy of Maduro hanging from a traffic light on the main boulevard that runs through eastern Caracas. Barricades constructed from concrete blocks, tree trunks, and garbage remained in many parts of the city, causing traffic snarls. Across the country Maduro's opponents launched protests and built barricades in most major cities, provoking violent clashes with security forces.

Since the protests erupted a little more than a month ago, at least 20 people have died and hundreds more have been arrested or injured in the worst rioting since Maduro assumed the presidency in April 2013. The government response has been two-faced: calling for dialogue and convening a peace conference on the one hand, and unleashing the police and National Guard on the other.

One year after his death, Chávez remains an important source of legitimacy for the regime. Maduro and his backers have done everything in their power to keep the memory of El Comandante alive -- and to deflect scrutiny away from their own embattled government. A caricature of Chávez's eyes and forehead forms the official insignia of Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Visitors arriving to Caracas via the main highway leading to the central part of the country are greeted by a massive billboard with his distinctive bushy eyebrows and steely eyes looking down on them.

Chávez is a constant feature on state television stations, which daily run film clips of the late president, most showcasing his dedication to the poor. Every Sunday, choice clips from Chávez's television show are rebroadcast.

"Chávez changed Venezuela for the better," says Omaira Yeuliz, a 46-year-old housecleaner whose new apartment in the capital was given to her under Chávez's housing program. In her living room, a large picture of Chávez hangs on the wall. "He was the first president to take an interest in the poor, and to try to improve our lives. Before Chávez, they -- the oligarchs -- neglected us. We were excluded. Not now."

Maduro, who lacks the charisma and speaking style of his predecessor, has spared no effort to remind Venezuelans that he was personally handpicked by Chávez to be his successor. The 51-year-old former bus driver has gone as far as claiming the late president appeared to him once as a bird to give him advice. Calling himself a "son of Chávez," Maduro peppers all speeches with references to the fallen leader, whose death, following months of cancer treatment in Cuba, remains shrouded in mystery. Neither the government nor Chávez's family has released details about what kind of cancer claimed the Venezuelan president. Rumors abound that he lingered in a vegetative state for weeks before his actual death.

"It's readily apparent that Maduro is no Chávez," says Margarita Lopez Maya, a historian at the Caracas-based Central University. "He lacks Chávez's charisma and his ability to mobilize people. That has made him more reliant on the military and limited his freedom of action."

Chávez, of course, would be a difficult act to follow for almost any politician. The career military officer rocketed to national fame with his abortive coup on Feb. 4 1992. Although the coup was short-lived and ended in his surrender, Chávez asked for and was granted permission to make a brief television broadcast to his followers, asking them to lay down their arms. In his speech, which lasted just one minute, Chávez became a national savior to many, saying his struggle for a better Venezuela would continue even though the coup had failed "for now."

Seven years later -- two of which were spent behind bars -- Chávez was sworn in as president.

"He was our first president to look Venezuelan," says Yeuliz. "He was brown like us, not white like the oligarchs." Chávez spoke to his countrymen in a very down-to-earth manner, discussing his relationships with women and even his intestinal problems on national television. He took issue with capitalism and U.S. imperialism, famously referring to President George W. Bush as "the Devil" in a speech at the United Nations. Chávez called for a multipolar world, free of U.S. domination.

But having come to power promising to make government more efficient and end corruption, Chávez instead laid the foundations for a monolithic state, which opponents claim is based on the Cuban model. Under his watch, Venezuela's bureaucracy burgeoned as more and more ministries and state agencies were created to oversee and administer his revolution. More alarmingly, Chávez gradually consolidated control over the country's independent political institutions.

The courts, the National Electoral Council, the attorney general's office, and even the National Assembly found their independence restricted in the name of the revolution. When the country's Supreme Court ruled against Chávez, he expanded its membership to make it more malleable.

"Chávez destroyed much of the country's political fabric," says Lopez Maya. "There was multipluralism before. Now, dialogue is difficult."

Chávez did enfranchise the poor, incorporating them into the country's political system. But the costs were considerable. Millions of people who signed recall petitions against him in 2004 were marginalized, banned from working in the government or state companies. Many who were already employed lost their positions. Political opponents, including the now imprisoned Leopoldo López, were likewise prevented from holding office. Television and radio stations that criticized the government lost their licenses, and Chávez brought in hundreds of Cuban security personnel to oversee the army and police apparatus.  

At the same time, however, Chávez laid the foundations for a second oil boom. Before his presidency, Venezuela had constantly flouted OPEC quotas, causing global oil prices to plunge. By the time Chávez took office, they were in the single digits. In response, he cut Venezuelan production and worked for unity within the oil cartel, touring of OPEC capitals and preaching adherence to quotas. Prices soon rebounded, giving the government a windfall in petrodollars that he quickly spent on social, health, and education programs -- and arms from abroad.

Although they succeeded in reducing extreme poverty, Chávez's economic programs -- which included the nationalization of key industries; the unilateral rewriting of oil contracts, taxes, and royalties; and the expropriation of private properties -- also laid the foundation for the country's current crisis. Foreign investors are now reluctant to put money into the country and the government is suffering from an acute shortage of foreign exchange. 

"I will remember Chávez as being the man who destroyed Venezuela, the economy, and the country's riches," says Susan Purcell, the director of the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy.

The numbers speak for themselves. Venezuelan oil production has declined by 25 percent since 1999, when Chávez took office. The country has the world's largest oil reserves, but has struggled to develop them. Chávez raised taxes and royalties on oil ventures, and decreed that state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) hold a majority stake in any enterprise. He also decreed that any business disputes between PDVSA and its partners be heard in the country's notoriously corrupt courts, rather than abroad. Oil companies such as ExxonMobil, BP, Conoco, Petronas, and Lukoil have since left the country.

Venezuela also has the world's highest rate of inflation -- 56 percent -- and a currency that has no value outside the country.

Production of cement and steel -- industries both nationalized by Chávez -- have plummeted since their expropriation in 2008. The late president further isolated Venezuela from the global economy by imposing currency and price controls during a nationwide strike to force him from office in 2002-2003. Access to U.S. dollars was strictly controlled, and the exchange rate to the dollar fixed. Prices on about 40 basic items were also set by the government.

Now, Venezuela is facing massive food shortages. Maduro says the shortages are caused by an "economic war" being waged by his opponents. Most analysts blame the shortages on the lack of foreign exchange needed to import goods. The country imports 70 percent of all products.

"The government warehouses are bare," says Roberto Briceno, who manages a government-owned grocery store in a working class neighborhood Caracas. "I used to open the store every day. Now I only open it on Friday because I have nothing to sell."

Maduro has tried to address the foreign exchange disaster by creating new agencies and auctions to distribute dollars, but he has been hampered by infighting within his own government. Corruption is partially to blame. The controls imposed by Chávez led to the development of schemes to take advantage of the rules and regulations. Many in Maduro's inner circle have seemingly gotten rich off of them.  

"It is true that Chávez spent billions on social programs but I think it's also true to say that much more was lost in corruption," says Purcell. "He created a kleptocracy in the country."

Venezuela will soon have three official exchange rates. The main government-mandated exchange rate, used for basic foodstuffs and medicines, is 6.3 bolivars to the dollar. A second exchange rate is 11 bolivars to the dollar, which is used for most other imports and remittances. On March 10, a third exchange rate -- determined by an auction in which private companies and individuals will be allowed to participate -- is expected to result in a rate of close to 20 to the dollar.

The black market rate -- which has become the de facto rate for many products and services -- is 90 to the dollar, or nearly 14 times higher than the main official rate. 

"It seems like I spend all day shopping," says Elianys Alonzo, a 21-year-old housewife. "I go from market to market to look for milk or cooking oil or pasta. I see a line, and I join it without asking what it's for."

Chávez's opponents have in a way helped perpetuate his image as the savior of the country by failing to link the late president to the woes afflicting the country -- even though its Chávez's policies that Maduro is following. Aware of Chávez's strong appeal one year after his death, the opposition has preferred to focus on the less popular Maduro's shortcomings.

 "The only thing that could get them [average Venezuelans] to reject Chávez is if some leader came forward with messages explaining to people how their situation is due to the decisions made by Chávez," says David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. "But the Venezuelan opposition has long thought that they can obtain power while holding their cards close to their chest."

Not surprisingly, Chávez partisans believe that the country's current woes are due to Maduro's incompetence and inability to follow through on the late president's vision -- or the result of insidious actions by the country's "fascists" or "counterrevolutionaries."

"If Chávez were alive, things would be better," Yeuliz said wistfully. "I have no doubt that the shortages and riots wouldn't be happening."

John Moore/Getty Images