Democracy Lab

Republic of Fear

Welcome to the Orwellian world of pre-referendum Crimea.

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea — The last time I spoke with Crimean activist Andriy Shchekun, I had no inkling that it might be my only opportunity to do so for a while. The next day, on March 9, he disappeared, along with two of his colleagues and his son Serhiy -- apparently spirited away by the pro-Russian security forces that have emerged all over this Ukrainian province ever since Russian troops began taking over at the beginning of this month.

Shchekun and his friends had been organizing rallies in support of keeping Crimea within Ukraine. Ever since pro-Russian forces made their grab for power late last month, he and his fellow activists have been on the receiving end of anonymous phone calls or graffiti threatening bad ends for those who would resist. "There are people in civilian clothes or in the uniforms of the Russian self-defense forces who try to scare people coming to our meetings," he told me. "Many Ukrainians and Tatars are receiving death threats. They're acting like bandits, but there are also many decent Russians who support us and don't want to be part of Putin's Russia."

A few days later I had an opportunity to ask Dmitri Polonsky, the new Crimean minister of information, what had happened to the Ukrainian activists. His response was utterly Orwellian: "There is no Ukrainian community in the Crimea, so there are no missing community leaders." Like all the rest of the people who have suddenly emerged over the past few days to staff the region's new administration, Polonsky is a Russian.

Polonsky's perverse logic tells you all you need to know about the situation in Crimea in the days leading up to Sunday's referendum, when the peninsula's inhabitants will be going to the polls to vote on whether they want to become a part of the Russian Federation. As the referendum drew closer this week, the atmosphere in the capital, Simferopol, and other parts of Crimea has grown increasingly sinister and oppressive.

On Feb. 27, Russian troops emerged from their bases in a sort of slow-motion coup, effectively occupying the peninsula and paving the way for the establishment of a new regional government run by a hitherto marginal pro-Russian politician named Sergei Aksyonov. In the weeks since then, Moscow has brought in additional troops by boat, plane, and helicopter to reinforce its hold over the territory. Ukrainian forces have been blockaded on their own bases by the Russian troops, estimated to number 26,000.

Last weekend the leaders of the self-proclaimed government of the Crimean Autonomous Republic announced that they were establishing their own army, which they inaugurated at a public ceremony in a park that commemorates the dead of World War II. As the eternal flame flickered in front of them, the men, wearing spanking new uniforms and boots and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles still glistening with packing grease, swore an oath of allegiance to the Crimean Republic.

Events since then have been moving fast. The Crimean parliament, working behind closed doors, voted to declare independence. The Russian parliament then approved a measure enabling the territory's annexation by Russia. Parliamentary leaders have said the legislation required for finalizing the move will be approved next week.

The referendum will give voters just two options: whether they want Crimea to join the Russian Federation or whether they want the peninsula to stay as part of Ukraine but under a 1992 constitution which lets them govern themselves.

Few here doubt the outcome. Russians make up just under 60 percent of the region's population of two million. Ukrainians comprise another 24 percent, while the Crimean Tatars, the people who have the oldest historical claim to the peninsula, account for another 12 percent. Members of the Ukrainian and Tatar communities have said that they won't take part in the referendum. Yet many told me that their internal passports, which serve as basic identification documents, have been taken away by people posing as officials who claimed to be updating electoral voter lists. Without their passports, these voters won't be able to participate in the referendum anyway.

The pro-Russian forces haven't only been neutralizing opposition activists. They've also cracked down on local media, shutting down newspapers and TV stations that don't toe Moscow's line. All flights from Crimea to the rest of Ukraine have been canceled. Many Ukrainians who are loyal to the government in Kiev have been leaving the peninsula for Ukraine.

Andrei Andrusov, though an ethnic Russian, is a former commander in the Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol. He is also married to a Ukrainian. After leaving the navy some years ago, he resumed his law studies and began working as a human rights lawyer. Like many other ethnic Russians from the peninsula, he traveled to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to participate in the pro-democracy protests in Independence Square, the "Maidan." He was also an organizer of pro-democracy protests in Crimea in support of the movement to oust then-President Viktor Yanukovych.

"When I returned to my apartment in Sevastopol last month from the Maidan, many of my neighbors knew about my activities," Andrusov told me. "They shunned me. Some of the Russians I've regarded as friends for 30 years refused to talk to me, calling me a traitor to Russia."

On March 11, Andrei was working in Simferopol when he learned that two mysterious men were looking for him. A friend in the Crimean security services contacted him and told him to leave as soon as possible, saying that his name had turned up on a list of those to be arrested by pro-Russian forces.

The only flights out of Crimea now are to Moscow, and trains are correspondingly crowded. Train passengers are subject to random inspections and questioning by thuggish supporters of the new government, Cossacks and volunteer "self-defense units" who work for the self-proclaimed Russian Crimean leader Aksyonov, a former criminal with the gangster nickname of "Goblin."

Andrei managed to get train tickets for his wife and himself. On March 12, carrying one bag with all their essentials, they boarded a train, leaving everything else behind. Just before midnight he phoned me: "We're in Free Ukraine. I've never been so happy." He signed off with the slogan used by the Maidan protesters: "Glory to Ukraine!" I could hear him crying.

As the new authorities have ratcheted up intimidation and violence against their communities, the Ukrainians and Tatars have held only a few small rallies to denounce the referendum. The rallies are often attacked by pro-government thugs.

At one such demonstration I watched as pro-Russian forces screamed obscenities, their faces twisting in rage when they spotted TV cameras from western media outlets, who are easy to pick out. Several western TV companies, including Associated Press TV, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and Italian SKY TV, have been physically attacked; in some cases the assailants also stole their equipment. One French Canadian journalist was taken off the streets by uniformed "volunteers" and handcuffed for hours before being released. A Bulgarian journalist was roughed up by others who shoved a pistol in his face.

The pro-Russian rallies are large. Their participants include many ordinary Russians, some attending with their children, who say that their language, religion, and culture have been shortchanged during the years of rule from Kiev. Few of them, however, are able to offer concrete examples of any sort of discrimination. Even Russian TV, which has been distorting the news in a way that would have made Goebbels blush, has failed to find a convincing case, despite scouring Crimea and Ukraine for weeks.

There is an unsettling feeling that people have been bombarded with so much Kremlin propaganda that they've become delusional, and now believe things that, at some level, they must recognize can't be true.

Many Russian activists complain that Kiev has done little for the peninsula since 1991 independence. They bemoan bad roads and skimpy pensions and welfare payments. They complain about corrupt politicians stealing from official funds. But that has been the case throughout corruption-infested Ukraine, where local authority leaders divide up most of budget transfers from the central government among themselves, leaving the miserable leftovers to the citizens. In Crimea, where the administration has been dominated by ethnic Russians since independence, the officials consist primarily of ethnic Russians who have been stealing from their own people.

Vladimir, 38, a taxi driver, pointed at some of the Russian soldiers -- the same soldiers whose presence Putin refuses to admit. "If these guys weren't here," Vladimir told me, "We'd have already been conquered by the fascists from Ukraine. They were already here, ready to take over."

He said he had seen some of the fascists, carrying a Nazi flag. When I expressed skepticism that someone would dare to show an SS flag in the midst of a fanatically pro-Putin crowd, his voice rose. "Yes!" he said, "I saw it myself. They were ready to raise their flags outside our parliament but our soldiers came."

It's not certain, though, that all of Crimea's ethnic Russians want to live in Russia or under Putin. A fair referendum might actually produce a vote to stay in the new Ukraine, which is one reason why it's not going to happen.

Nikita, 25, a software development programmer, told me: "I'm proud of my Russian and Jewish roots, but I'm a Ukrainian citizen, and I want Crimea to stay Ukrainian. My friends and I supported the overthrow of Yanukovych."

Sveta, 24, an ethnic Russian lawyer, has a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother: "But they both want Crimea to remain in Ukraine," she told me. "Russian-speakers have never been persecuted here. None of my friends -- whether they're Russian, Ukrainian or Tatar -- want to live under Putin's dictatorship."

The United States and the European Union have said that they refuse to recognize the referendum because of the extraordinary circumstances under which it has been organized. There will be no independent monitors from organizations such as the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, whose military observers came under fire from Russian forces last weekend when they tried to enter the peninsula.

I asked Polonsky, the minister of information, why the referendum is being held nonetheless. "The referendum is being conducted according to exactly the same standards that are applied everywhere else in the world," he told me. "How do Western countries and organizations get off telling us how to organize the referendum and to live our lives?" No one, he insisted, had shot at the OSCE monitors. He also assured me that Crimean Tatars were stealing their own passports to discredit the referendum.

Stalin ordered the entire Crimean Tatar population deported to Soviet Central Asia in 1944 for alleged collaboration with wartime German occupiers. Some 300,000 Tatars were herded onto train wagons under the most brutal of conditions. An estimated 46 percent died during transport or in the first year.

The exiles began returning home in 1989, during the era of Mikhail Gorbachev. The migration increased after Ukraine's independence from the USSR in 1991. There have often between tensions between the returnees and the Russian majority, who have traditionally had little sympathy for the Crimean Tatar plight.

Sayeed, 25, a Tatar historian, was just a few years old when he arrived in Crimea. "I feel myself a Ukrainian although Ukraine hasn't done very much for us," he told me. "But we can expect even less under Russia. We Tatars and the whole of Ukraine are trapped in a big game being played out between Russia and the West. We don't want war and bloodshed here, but that's exactly what this referendum could bring." One can only pray that he's wrong.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Dispatch

The Frontman vs. al Qaeda

Meet Jamal Maarouf, the West's best fighting chance against Syria's Islamist armies.

ANTAKYA, Turkey — In this Turkish town, just miles from the Syrian border, Jamal Maarouf has traded his military fatigues for simple civilian dress. He sits in a narrow apartment in the town's old city; a tangle of charging smartphones rests in the middle of the room. The leader of the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), a moderate rebel alliance, is surrounded by his commanders and advisors, who are perched on overstuffed couches and thin foam mattresses.

Maarouf is only here for the day, and plans to return to the battlefield later that night. "I am a fighter," he says. "I eat and sleep with my men, and during the battles I'm always with them on the front line. I feel their pain." 

Maarouf has been the big winner of the recent push by rebel groups to oust the extremist al Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), from northern Syria. His alliance was one of the first to launch the fight against ISIS, winning a series of quick, decisive victories in early January that shot it to prominence both inside Syria and out. Islamist rebels have also gradually joined his cause: The Islamic Front, the country's largest rebel alliance, has repeatedly clashed with ISIS, while Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria, issued an ultimatum last week calling on ISIS to submit to mediation or be exterminated.

The SRF is a collection of moderate rebel groups, about 25,000 fighters in all, bound more by their common cause to roll back Islamist influence in Syria than a specific ideology. The group was formed in early December by uniting 14 factions with particularly strong representation in the northern Idlib province, including Maarouf's Syrian Martyrs' Brigade, Ahrar al-Shamal, and the Idlib Military Council.

While an estimated 3,000 anti-Assad fighters have been killed in the infighting against ISIS, Maarouf believes that the effort to expel the jihadist group is only making the rebel cause stronger. He claims the fight has healed the divisions that previously plagued the rebel forces, and transformed the opposition into stronger, more effective fighters.

"It's a positive situation," he says. "Now around 70 percent of Syria's opposition groups are unified and together they're doing well, securing many victories against both the regime and [ISIS]."

Maarouf's actions have led some to hope that he could be a rebel commander that the West could wholeheartedly support -- someone with influence on the ground, and no extremist tendencies. He maintains close ties with Syria's Western-backed political leadership in exile, most recently becoming one of the few commanders to endorse the peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, last month. On the eve of the negotiations, Syrian National Coalition head Ahmad Jarba paid Maarouf a battlefield visit -- an effort to use the moderate rebel commander as proof that the opposition coalition had influence on the ground in Syria.

Maarouf says he would be open to Western support, and it's not hard to see why his political and religious views make him a potentially attractive partner for those concerned with the rise of Islamist extremists. "I love my country and I am a practicing Muslim," he explains, "but my religion preserves dignity and freedom for other people as well."

The rebel commander says he's fighting for an inclusive Syria with a representative government: "The real Syrian people don't like terrorism or extremism, they're a tolerant people," he says.

Maarouf's lack of any defined ideology had led to condemnations from rival groups that he had joined Syria's war for little more than his own enrichment. Hassan Aboud, a leader of the Salafist brigade Ahrar al-Sham, has called Maarouf's men "gangs," accusing them of attacking and stealing from other members of the opposition. After the Islamic Front, an umbrella alliance for Islamist militias of which Aboud is a top official, was accused of pillaging warehouses being used by the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, Aboud shot back, saying that Maarouf "should not forget he was one of the first to steal from the Free Syrian Army." As a result of such condemnations, support for his Syrian Martyrs' Brigade dwindled throughout much of 2013.

"In terms of the Syrian conflict all together, I think he's predominantly been seen as an opportunist," says Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha center. "For a period of time prior to the formation of the SRF under his leadership, his popular support on the ground had reduced significantly and he was almost decried within certain circles."

All this turned on a dime when Maarouf first took on ISIS. In the SRF's first battle against ISIS, his forces routed the jihadists from the strategically important town of Atareb, near the Turkish border. Maarouf justifies his struggle against ISIS in explicitly religious terms: "The Quran says you have your religion and I have mine," he says, but continues with a caveat. "God also says you can attack anyone if he attacks you, even if he is a Muslim."

For Maarouf and his men, this confidence has translated into an influx of weapons and cash -- mostly from Saudi Arabia, Maarouf says. The rebel commander shrugs off a question about whether his close ties to the kingdom are problematic for someone who claims to fight only for the Syrian people.

"Saudi Arabia supported the revolution from the beginning," he says, unruffled. "Until now we haven't received any other support, so we thank Saudi Arabia very much for all they have given us."

So far, Maarouf appears to be successfully balancing his role as a simple military commander with his need to woo powerful allies abroad for guns and money. Anti-Assad Syrians, meanwhile, are watching closely to see whether he can emerge as a leader strong enough to rid their country of both Assad and the jihadists.

On the other side of Antakya's old city, two Syrian businessmen with ties to a number of rebel groups -- some of whom are critical of Maarouf -- chat about the day's news over flutes of sweet tea. 

When the subject of Maarouf comes up, one of the men pauses. "Let's be honest, nobody in this war in Syria is completely clean," he sighs, betraying a hint of exhaustion with the endless search for a leader to champion. "But at least for me as a Syrian, Maarouf does what I want, he represents the true Syria."

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images