A Crimean Travelogue, Part I

By:Srdja Trifkovic

By:Srdja Trifkovic

Friday, March 14 – The afternoon Aeroflot flight from Belgrade to Moscow takes a surprising route: due north over Hungary, Slovakia and eastern Poland, then turning east-northeast over Belarus, and into the Russian air space just east of Smolensk. In more normal times the flight path would have taken us across Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, shorter by some 250 miles. The attendant tells me that the decision to divert flights to bypass Ukraine had only been made the previous day. Interestingly, I learn later that Air Serbia’s flights from Belgrade to Moscow still follow the old route.

The names of the towns 35,000 feet below – Brest, Minsk, Mogilev, Smolensk, Borodino, Mozhaisk – fit almost exactly the line of advance of Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1812, and that of Hitler’s Army Group Center in 1941. Observing those immense spaces makes one wonder about that strange, self-destructive impulse that makes the lure of western Eurasia so hard to resist. OK, John McCain is ignorant of history as well as insane,ditto the neocons, but Zbigniew Brzezinski is not. Those endless forests and rivers remind me of my plea – often repeated in the pages of Chroniclesover the years – for a paradigm shift in the West that would pave the way for a Northern Alliance of Russia, Europe, and North America. All three face similar existential threats, demographic and cultural, in the decades ahead. Their renewed disputes caused by old geopolitical ambitions can only regale the hearts of that false prophet’s followers everywhere.
The late-evening flight from Moscow to Simferopol is almost full. Overhead bins of the Soviet-era IL-96-300 are huge, so some two-dozen Western and Asian media crews are able to place their cameras, tripods and other equipment out of the harm’s way. A Russian policewoman checks our passports at Sheremetyevo’s Terminal D: the SU1826 is evidently still treated as an international flight. We are 45 minutes late departing Moscow, but arrive almost on time two and a half hours later.
No alcohol is served on board, to the loud chagrin of three British journalists seated in front of me. (They surreptitiously dig into their duty-free supplies instead.) A Dutch businessman to my left mentions some unspecified “opportunities” in the Crimea, as the Russians are “certain to invest billions soon” into the peninsula’s downgraded infrastructure. Some of the passengers are Crimean Russians resident abroad who are making the trip in order to vote in the referendum. My friend and fellow monitor Alessandro Musolino, a member of the Provincial Parliament of Veneto, has shared his flight from Venice with seven young women from the Crimea who work in Italy as nurses and who had taken a week off to come home for the occasion.
On arrival there are no soldiers and no military equipment or vehicles in evidence, either inside or around the airport building. Having visited various hotspots around the world over the years, I am struck by the air of apparent normality that prevails here. The police personnel at the control counter wear Ukraine’s blue-and-gold shoulder badges, and the passport stamp says (in Ukrainian) “Україна—Сімферополь.” They are certainly loyal to the Crimean local government, however, and the only two flags outside the building are those of Russia and the Crimean Republic.
In the arrivals hall I find myself under the sudden glare of camera lights, as a dozen microphones are pointed at me: “Are you one of the monitors? Where are you from? Who has invited you? Where will you go?” A Japanese crew, quicker than the rest, pushes me aside and I give them an impromptu interview, the first of many to come over the next few days. Yes, I am here because I believe the referendum is legitimate, especially in the light of several precedents – not just that of Kosovo! – established by the United States and her NATO allies in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere. No, it is not “unconstitutional,” since we’ve witnessed the complete collapse of constitutional order in Kiev. Yes, I am an American, and I believe it would be in America’s best interest not to get involved any deeper in this crisis. No, I don’t think there will be any war, least of all a World War III. Yes, I feel safe, and no, I am not getting paid.
Still a little dazed, I am rescued by a young man waving a board with my name. The twenty-minute ride to the recently refurbished Ukraina hotelindicates that road paving businesses should have a great future in Simferopol (Mr. Dutchman, take note). At the lobby I meet two old acquaintances, deputy speaker of the Serbian Assembly Nenad Popovic and former Partido Popular youth wing official Pedro Mouriño from Madrid. We retire early; it’s been a long day. (Those Brits from the plane soldier on at the bar, however.)
Saturday, March 15 – My volunteer driver Anna (a dermatologist by profession, to my right here) and Tatiana, the interpreter, pick me up from the hotel at 9:30. We visit two polling stations – one at a local high school, another at the University – to check on the preparations. The stations are the same, they say, as they were in October 2012, when the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada (national parliament) elections were held. (As it happens I was in Kiev back then, also as an international observer.) The voter rolls for the referendum are based on that election. Although the new authorities in Kiev refuse to provide the central register to the Crimean government, the polling stations have kept their own lists of registered voters, which – I am told – were finally updated by the end of the day on March 12.
While talking to the officials I pointed out that the two referendum questions – “Are you in favor of unifying Crimea with Russia as a part of the Russian Federation?” and “Are you in favor of restoring the 1992 constitution and the status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine?” – appeared to be limited in scope. What about those voters whose preference is for maintaining the status quo? Their answer was that a return to the 1992 Ukrainian constitution – which provided for Crimea’s broad autonomy within Ukraine – is the only legal and legitimate alternative for two reasons: not only because Ukraine’s current constitution has been suspended by the coup in Kiev, but – even more importantly – because Crimea’s autonomy under the 1992 constitution was illegitimately abolished with the imposition of the direct presidential rule from Kiev in 1994, by the unilateral suspension of the Crimean constitution in 1995, and by the adoption of a new Ukrainian constitution one year later which severely reduced Crimea’s autonomy. “We were never consulted about any of those measures, which were neither legal nor democratic, and we therefore cannot accept their maintenance as a legitimate option.”
Simferopol struck me as a rather dilapidated, unprosperous Soviet-era city. Its commercial and administrative downtown area, including a recently renovated pedestrian district with cafés and boutiques, is surrounded by the familiar rings of Khrushchev-era apartment blocks. Potholed roads, crumbling façades, boarded-up workshops. There was no military presence anywhere in sight, although a stand-off with a company-sized Ukrainian garrison was reportedly continuing at a military base at Perevalnoye, 20 miles away. Two-dozen middle-aged, unarmed Cossacks in traditional fur hats outside the local parliament building merely add a touch of folkloristic color; they did not look like they could scare their own grandchildren. In the afternoon we drove to Yalta, 50 miles to the south. On the way there and back the only uniformed person was a traffic policeman writing tickets at a speed trap. (Finally I did encounter a local citizens’ militia patrol in Sevastopol two days later – no masks, and happy to be photographed.)
Yalta is situated just south of the mountain range (Krimskiye Gory) which separates the Black Sea coast from the hinterland. The difference inclimate, sky color, vegetation and architecture is striking. The overall effect reminded me of passing the final peak on the road from Cetinje to Budva, in Montenegro, on a wintry day a decade ago. The sight of vineyards and fig and almond trees warm the heart. Olive cultivation is also making a gradual comeback, having been in disfavor under the Bolsheviks who apparently regarded the noble fruit as suspiciously bourgeois. An ancient grove at Nikita, six miles east of Yalta, reminds us that this peninsula had been an integral part of the civilized world long before the arrival of the assorted invaders from the steppes, let alone the Commissars.
Yalta’s seafront promenade, evidently modeled after a South of France resort, seemed light years away from the hectic diplomatic activity which was under way, at that very hour, in some distant capitols. Chekhov’s lady with a dog is there, as well as the renovated chapel of the Ladies’ TB Foundation, demolished by the Bolsheviks in the 1920’s. The last Tzar’s summer retreat at Livadya, built to the human scale of a palazzo one may encounter at Stresa or in Sorrento, is a gem marred only by the unpleasant memory of certain proceedings which were signed and sealed here in February 1945.
Back in Simferopol, I rushed to a press conference organized for the foreign monitors at 6 pm. The tone of the event, according to the NBC report prominently aired later that evening in the U.S., “turned decidedly anti-American… when Serge Trifkovic, an American foreign affairs analyst of Serbian origin, criticized the United States’ involvement in the upcoming referendum.” To its credit, the report then quoted the examples of my “anti-Americanism”:
“Nobody asked the people of Crimea if they wanted to be transferred from the Russian Federation within the USSR to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic,” Trifkovic said. He added that it’s “richly ironic” U.S. leaders appear to be upholding the Soviet Communist Party’s legacy by insisting Crimea must remain part of Ukraine, while Russian President Vladimir Putin is “upholding the right of people to self-determination and liberty.” […] Trifkovic said he believes the vote is a democratic one. “Well, he’s got another thing coming, the leader of the free world,” he said of President Obama. “Because, as it happens, this peninsula will herald a new era in international relations.”
I actually called Obama “this so-called leader of the free world,” but never mind. Ten days later I stand by my assessment, with one correction. The “new era in international relations” was inaugurated by Bill Clinton’s interventions in the former Yugoslavia, and especially by his acceptance of the utterly unconstitutional referendum in Bosnia-Herzegovina – which ignited the war there – and his barbaric 1999 bombing of Serbia in support of Kosovo’s secession.
The “new era” continued with George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), and his enthusiastic recognition of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence (2008). That “new era” was crowned by the current incumbent’s abuse of a Security Council resolution to wage a six-month air war against Libya in 2011, which duly pushed the country back into the dark age of Islamist tribalism.
Crimea heralds a new phase of that “new era,” the one in which the “policy-making community” in Washington DC can no longer dictate what is “legal” and what is not to the rest of the planet. It is to be hoped that the events in and around Ukraine over the past four months will prompt many patriotic Americans to take stock of the irresponsible and criminal actions of their leaders over the past quarter-century. If my trip to the Crimea contributes to that outcome it will have been worth while.
Sunday, March 16 – the referendum day – started with a morning visit to three polling stations. By 10 a.m. mainly the elderly turned out to vote in large numbers, some of them very frail and most visibly poor. While those approached outside insist that their vote to join Russia is not affected by material considerations, a few admit that the prospect of having their miserable Ukrainian pensions doubled is “a pleasing prospect.” Around 10:30families with children start arriving, with the young people to follow after midday. It’s a windy, drizzly day, but the officials say that this does not appear to affect the turnout, which exceeded 50 percent of registered voters in the first four hours. The atmosphere is relaxed, no police or armed men in sight. In one place the PA system played Soviet-era pop (the ubiquitous Podmoskovnie Vechera included); in another complimentary tea and cookies were served.
Early p.m.: back to the Assembly building for a couple of live interviews with the RT and Al-Jazeera, followed by a well deserved double espresso with PBS’s Margaret Warner in a nearby café. We tacitly agree to disagree on the genesis of the current crisis and its likely aftermath. She is off to eastern Ukraine tomorrow, where most local oligarchs seem to have sided with the authorities in Kiev and a few high-profile have accepted gubernatorial posts. Interestingly, crossing the isthmus to the mainland by car appears not to be an issue.
Back at the hotel, browsing the Net over lunch I am startled by the full text of President Obama’s Executive Order (“Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Ukraine”) which was issued last week, but which I have not had the opportunity to read in full until now. It is an incredible document, with the potential to affect all those (whether American or not) who disagree with the U.S. government policy or positions in this part of the world and dare declare their disagreement in public. In the preamble the President claims that all actions “that undermine democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine; threaten its peace, security, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; and contribute to the misappropriation of its assets, constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”:
I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat. I hereby order:
Section 1. (a) All property and interests in property that are in the United States… of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in: any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State:
(i) to be responsible for or complicit in, or to have engaged in, directly or indirectly, [emphasis added] any of the following:
(A) actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine;
(B) actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine [ … ]
For the purposes of this order, President Obama specifies that “the term ‘United States person’ means any United States citizen, permanent resident alien, entity organized under the laws of the United States or any jurisdiction within the United States (including foreign branches), or any person in the United States” (Sec. 6c). Furthermore, he determines “that for these measures to be effective in addressing the national emergency declared in this order, there need be no prior notice of a listing or determination made pursuant to section 1 of this order.” (Sec. 7)
It is not hard to imagine the reaction of our mainstream media and politicians had Vladimir Putin declared a national emergency to deal with the “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the Russian Federation” arising from Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008. Had he imposed similar sanctions on “persons or entities, Russian or foreign, responsible for or complicit in, or to have engaged in, directly or indirectly, actions or policies that threaten the territorial integrity of Serbia,” he would have been duly Hitlerized six years before Hillary Clinton screamed “Munich!” last February.
Monday, March 17 – After a brief midday news conference on the results of the referendum, my driver and interpreter takes me to Sevastopol, strategically the most important location along the shores of the Black Sea. Situated on a rocky promontory at the southwestern tip of the Crimea, ever since Catherine the Great it has been one of the strongest fortified points in the world. The city’s configuration and the entrance to the port are somewhat reminiscent of Portsmouth, but – unlike any British city in modern times – Sevastopol was doomed to endure two epic and very bloody sieges. One lasted a year during the Crimean War (1854-55) and the other, far more savage, went on for eight grueling months at the height of the Army Group South’s advance into Russia (November 1941-July 1942). Both episodes provide an inexhaustible treasure trove for military historians; they also underline Sevastopol’s current emotional, as well as strategic, significance for Russia and for the Russians who inhabit it.
At the entrance to the city there used to be a local militia checkpoint, but it was removed a week ago. The only esthetically pleasing buildings hark back to the Czarist era. Like everywhere else in the former USSR, there are also a few ugly specimens of Stalin’s neoclassicism. Near the sea promenade I finally encounter a Crimean self-defense patrol, two youngsters with guns (one of them constantly chatting to his girlfriend on the cell phone) and two unarmed Cossacks from the Kuban. Across the square a bearded man plays Russian folk songs on the accordion, a few elderly ladies providing impromptu vocals. Along the promenade a plaque commemorates the departure of the last White forces from Russia in November 1920. There are far fewer strollers than in Yalta two days ago; the wind brings chilly sea mist and the waves are gray.
We stop for a late lunch at Bakhchisaray, the old Crimean Tatar capital 25 miles north of Sevastopol. This predominantly Tatar town of 30,000 looks and feels Anadolian rather than Soviet. The Khan’s Palace is closed (it’s Monday), but the restaurants are open, although pretty empty at 4 p.m. The traditional Tatar fare is more Turkish than Central Asian, and herbal tea is the beverage of choice. Being entrepreneurial, after their return from exile in 1991 some Tatars have started planting vineyards which by now yield decent vintages of mainly sweet and demi-sec reds. There is not an armed man, of any race or nationality, to be seen. As the evening call to prayers echoes from the minarets, we depart for Simferopol.
It is from this place that The Guardian reported two days ago that “ethnic tensions were reaching boiling point.” It was a lie, of course. Ever since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s it has been reasonable to assume that whatever we read or hear in the Western media about anything is a lie. The events in Ukraine and around Ukraine over the past four months, and my four days in the Crimea, have only confirmed what we know.

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