Crimeans Divided Over Secession And Soviet Legacy

With Sunday's referendum in Crimea fast approaching, people there are split into two sharply divided camps. Both are convinced that their side is right.

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The people running Crimea these days have little doubt about the result of this Sunday's referendum. They're confident of getting the majority vote they need to secede from Ukraine. But in a silent protest against the Russian presence, some pro-Ukrainian Crimeans plan to stay home on Sunday. NPR's Gregory Warner reports from Simferopol.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: It used to be that crossing the border between Crimea and mainland Ukraine was no more a thing than driving from Florida up into Alabama. But today, if you want to cross, you have to stop about 30 feet from the armored personnel trucks and concrete barriers that guard that border, make your hands visible and then wait for the man in the green ski mask and uniform to approach you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: The first thing he asks me and my translator is whether we have cameras, strictly forbidden. These soldiers who rarely identify themselves or their nationality are nicknamed by some locals green people, both a reference to their color of clothing and to the feeling that Crimea has been taken over by aliens.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Where are you from?

WARNER: America, New York, Washington, D.C. It's the wrong answer, perhaps. He gives me a silent hand signal, which he then interprets as turn around, go back and, no, you can't ask any questions. But the soldier next to him, wearing a different color uniform, he wants to talk.

ANDREI: I speak in English not well but it's...

WARNER: He says his name is Andrei. He's from Crimea, born and bred, and his grandfather helped build the military base on the Crimean shore of the Black Sea, Sevastopol, where Russia now keeps its naval fleet and wants it to stay. Andrei served in the Soviet army until the Soviet Union collapsed. He found work teaching swimming lessons to kids. It was only the protests on Kiev's Independence Square, called Maidan, that inspired him to get out of the pool and pick up a gun again.

ANDREI: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: My grandfather helped build Sevastopol, he repeats. It was the most beautiful, clean, white-stone city in the USSR. I don't want that my city be destroyed by Maidan. When Andrei votes this Sunday to join Russia, he'll be thinking fondly of the Soviet Union. And this week, Crimean radio started broadcasting pro-referendum PSAs underscored with the Soviet anthem, the Soviet anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: By far, the largest pro-Ukrainian rally in Crimea this week was organized today by an ethnic group particularly ill-treated by the Soviets. The Muslim Tatars were expelled from their native Crimea in 1944.

SABIRA ALIEVA: Yes, of course, we are prepared for the worst.

WARNER: Sabira Alieva was raised in exile in Uzbekistan and was only allowed to return to her native Crimea after the Soviet Union collapsed. That's why she says she can't accept a referendum to join Russia.

ALIEVA: Never accept it and we will live on the occupied territory my mother lived during the occupation.

WARNER: She thinks of the Soviet period as one long Russian occupation.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: They're chanting, boycott the referendum. The Crimean Tatars have decided on a boycott as their best answer to a referendum where pro-Russian authorities have already predicted overwhelming victory.

ALIEVA: Because the percent is announced already. They said it was 73, then it was 76, and yesterday, I have read 85.

WARNER: So she says, let the vote be closer to 100 percent and thereby lose legitimacy. The protesters stretched out this afternoon in a single-file line alongside three of the main roads out of the city, encouraging passing drivers to stay home on Sunday's vote. The reason for this single-file protest was also safety. It's harder for pro-Russian hooligans to cause violence if there's no crowd to provoke.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Simferopol.

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