There is no doubt about how Crimea’s March 16 independence referendum is going to go, but keep an eye on the turnout figure. That’s because Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group that comprises an estimated 15 percent of the peninsula’s population, seem inclined to stay home on referendum day.
As has been widely reported, Russia’s move into Crimea has placed Tatars in an uncomfortable position. Most don’t want to live under a Kremlin yoke, but neither do they want to leave their cultural homeland.
On March 14, an estimated several thousand Tatars participated in peaceful demonstrations (watch video) along roads leading to the Crimean capital Simferopol. Demonstrators chanted a variety of slogans, including "Crimea is part of Ukraine," "No to a referendum," and "We are for peace."
For the time being, Russian leaders are being solicitous of Tatars in the hopes of winning their acceptance, if not tacit support for Crimea’s occupation by Russian armed forces. Among the rumored incentives offered to the Tatar community was a 20 percent representation quota in the Crimean legislature.
“The Russians and the self-proclaimed Crimean authorities … try to buy us with promises of higher salaries, large investment projects, better representation in government for Tatars and other benefits if we join Russia. There is no intimidation; just lots of offers of bribes. But I do not trust them,” said a Tatar, resident of Simferopol, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Following a March 12 telephone discussion with Vladimir Putin, the leading representative of the Crimean Tatar community and a member of the Ukrainian parliament, Mustafa Jemilev, reported that the Kremlin’s boss tried to sound reassuring toward Tatars. “Putin gave his assurances that he will do everything possible to make sure that Crimean Tatars, who suffered so much in the 20th century, do not have to live through another tragedy,” Jemilev said, referring to the 1944 mass deportation of Tatars ordered by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Jemilev remains an unwavering advocate of preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity. “What was mentioned was that the situation in Crimea should be resolved without violating Ukraine’s state sovereignty,” he said, recounting his conversation with Putin in comments broadcast by a local Crimean television channel, ATR. “It goes without saying that Ukraine’s territorial integrity implies the absence of foreign troops on its territory.”
Jemilev indicated that he pressed Putin on the question of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Not only would Putin offer no guarantees, saying that the March 16 referendum would determine Russia’s position, he also called into question the legitimacy of Ukrainian sovereignty. “Putin mentioned that Ukraine’s gaining independence did not quite follow the Soviet law under which republics could exit the USSR. That is his position,” Jemilev stated in comments distributed by the UNIAN news agency.
Speaking of the referendum, a resounding endorsement for independence is a foregone conclusion. Long before Russian troops arrived in unmarked uniforms, there was strong sentiment locally for Crimea’s separation from Ukraine. Leaders of the Russian community on the peninsula now are predicting an 80 percent ‘yes’ vote for independence. What will be interesting to see is if, in order to make the vote-total prophesy come true, local authorities will resort to Soviet-style ballot stuffing. Since there will be no systematic and independent monitoring mission covering the referendum, it’ll be hard to determine the extent of irregularities, if there are any.
A good gauge of vote-rigging, though, might be the turnout total. If most Tatars don’t participate, it’ll be hard to believe any turnout total over 80 percent. Suspected fudging of the turnout total would be a likely indicator that the results are pre-cooked.
In a random sampling of Tatar opinion, EurasiaNet.org did not find one Tatar who was inclined to participate in the referendum. Some said they would not participate on principle, calling the referendum illegitimate. Others merely didn’t see the utility of casting a ballot.
“Even if I say “No” to both questions [on the ballot paper], it is not like our votes will decide anything. They have decided everything for us already,” said one likely Tatar non-voter.