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Crimea Referendum: Tatar Muslims, Jews And The Middle Class Fear For Future

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In Crimea this Sunday, the choice is clear. Vote yes, or vote yes. Russia's flag has already been hoisted above Crimea's parliament building. The referendum's options can effectively be translated as 'Do you want to join Russia now?' or 'Do you want to join Russia later?'

The ethnic Russian majority in Crimea have ingrained suspicions of the Ukrainian interim government, which ousted Kremlin-friendly premier Viktor Yanukovych.

They fear a groundswell of anti-Russian feeling could lead to violence against ethnic Russians in Ukraine, which Vladmir Putin claims is already happening and is the motivator for Russia's decision to act.

Ukraine, and many Western reporters on the ground in Crimea, say this is not the case, and demonstrations are stoked by provocateurs with Russian passports.

crimea tatars

Crimean Tatars stage a demonstration for peace in Marino district of Simferopol

For many ethnic Russians, who have listened to the (not entirely groundless) warnings that neo-Nazis are being given top roles in Ukrainian's new administration, the choice is become simple. Uneasy as it seems from an outsider's perspective, polls consistently show that a minimum of 60% of Crimea's residents prefer to live under Moscow that Kiev, though Western powers have dismissed the validity of any poll which takes place so hurriedly, with no electoral roll, and with the presence of foreign troops on the streets.

Sunday's poll is expected to show an overwhelming mandate for Putin to annexe the peninsula.

Middle class intelligentsia of the Crimea, natural allies of the Maidan movement in Kiev, are already starting to leave their homes, though the departure of locals opposed to Russian rule has been a trickle rather than a stream.

Street protests here are now few and far between, but there is a climate of unease, with pictures emerged on Friday of lengthy queues at bank machines.

However there is a significant minority in Crimea whose loyalty lies with the new Ukrainian government, who fear for their future in the coming days. They are those who would vote no, if no were an option on the ballot paper.

THE TATARS

crimea tatars

A family of Crimean Tartars disembarks from a train as they arrive from Simferopol to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv

The most outspoken opponents of Crimea's occupation by Russia are Crimean Tatars - Sunni Muslims who are the peninsula's oldest inhabitants.

They faced historic persecution under Russian rule. Accused of being Nazi collaborators, Tatars were deported to gulags under Stalin, and 108,000 died of hunger and disease.

Unsurprisingly then, 90% of 3,000 Tatar's surveyed oppose returning to Russian rule, Tatar TV reported on Thursday. The group makes up 12% of Crimea's population.

Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar council, has announced that its members will boycott Sunday’s referendum, because the poll is "illegal". Many Tatars had joined the protests that became the Orange Revolution in 2004, and the recent Euromaidan activism that brought down Yanukovych.

As they wait to hear their fate, many have been keeping a low profile, with the new prime minister of Crimea aligned to Crimean nationalist group Russia Unity, members of which have boasted of attacking Tatars.

Tartars in the Crimean town of Bakhchysarai have told the New Yorker of their houses being 'tagged' with a carved 'X' onto their gates.

Speaking to the Guardian on Thursday, Refat Chubarov, chairman of the Simferopol-based Mejlis, called the referendum "a choice while staring down the barrel of a gun".

But few have left the Crimea. Those who survived deportation to work camps under Stalin returned to their motherland after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and it would be unthinkable to leave again.

"If they try to deport us again, better they should kill us here," a Tatar called Lenora told the Washington Post.

THE JEWISH COMMUNITY

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Graffiti on a synagogue in Simferopol, Crimea

It is not necessarily an upswell in anti-Semitism that Crimean Jews fear if their region was to be Russian. Rather, many Jews object to the notion that Russian troops are liberators, freeing the Jews from a new, fascist regime. Jews in Crimea were persecuted both under Nazism and Stalinism.

Misha Kapustin, a rabbi in Simferopol, said he was deeply suspicious of the graffiti on his synagogue which said 'Death to the Jews', alongside the symbol of the Ukrainian national party, but with the symbol the wrong way round. And because of that, he is leaving the peninsula.

"I said to my wife, 'do you want your children to be silent?', to only be able to say what they think in their own kitchen, like in Soviet times?" Kapustin told CNN.

Jews in Ukraine are, for the most part, Russian speaking. But last week, an open letter, signed by dozens of leading Ukrainian Jews was sent to Putin, emphatically stating that Jews did not wish to be rescued by Russia.

"We do not believe that you are easy to fool. You consciously pick and choose lies and slander from the massive amount of information about Ukraine," the letter read.

The letter, signed by rabbis and prominent businessmen, said Putin had "confused Ukraine with Russia, where Jewish organisations have noticed growth in anti-Semitic tendencies last year".

The Jews of Ukraine, as all ethnic groups, are not completely unified in their opinion of the new government, the letter said. But what they are sure of, is they want the right to disagree, and are not "fooled" by Russian tales of imminent Jewish pogroms.

"It is your policy of inciting separatism and crude pressure placed on Ukraine that threatens us and all Ukrainian people, including those who live in Crimea and the Ukrainian South-East. South-eastern Ukrainians will soon see that for themselves."

THE MIDDLE CLASS

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A woman holds a baby at the main railway station in Simferopol, Ukraine

Of those planning on packing up and leaving Crimea if the referendum falls in favour of immediate annexation, the vast majority are the monied middle-classes, worried about instability and violence.

“We have a joke here: Who wins if Crimea becomes part of Russia? The pensioners, the civil servants and the military. Who loses? The creative class, the middle class,” Sergei Kostinsky, the director of a Crimean marketing firm told the Globe and Mail.

Kostinsky said he is not planning on leaving yet, but he knows many who already have, encourage by friends in the country's western regions.

“I get pressure from colleagues in Kiev and Lviv for me to leave Crimea. They say ‘We need you here. We have a country to build.’ But I will stay here as long as possible. Until it becomes dangerous," he said.

“There are people who play important roles in my life – I won’t say how many – but for them the idea of life here is intolerable.”