When Iryna Rayevska first came to Winnipeg from Ukraine a few years ago to do her undergraduate studies at University of Manitoba, she never would have believed the prospects of going home would be so frightening.
For Rayevska, returning to her homeland in eastern Ukraine means having to pass through customs and border control. After the tumultuous events unfolding in recent months, her hometown of Yalta in the Crimea region is in fact now under Russian administration, and being treated as a “zone of restricted access to entry or exit” by Ukraine.
“It won’t be the same easy journey,” she says haltingly. “As the train from Kiev to Simferopol will be crossing border, customs officers from both sides will verify my documents and I’ll require to explain the reasons for my trip. I even heard on the news that train services between Crimea and mainland Ukraine may be suspended indefinitely.”
In late February and March, the situation in Crimea changed by the hour, quite literally. Although Yalta remained calm, Rayevska worried about the safety of her family and the destiny of her homeland. “I would wake up at odd hours to catch the news on TV. It is not very reassuring to see armoured vehicles and military men so close to your hometown.”
Rayevska is unsure of the changed world that awaits her in Yalta. She fears a throwback to the Soviet era with a clampdown on freedom of speech and disregard for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. “Being a minority, I will be cautious about my behaviour in public,” she says. “There will be some unease in interactions with the Russian speaking people that I know, and even friends I grew up with. Discussing politics is best avoided outside the walls of your home.”
Multinational Crimean society, as Rayevska knows it, has always seen a strong domination of Russian culture and language. She recalls an incident that happened years ago when she applied for the position of a public servant. Officials of the examination board publicly reproached her in front of other applicants for choosing to write the selection test in Ukrainian.
Ukrainians settled in Winnipeg are seeing a sinister design behind Russia’s moves in Crimea.
“After the Holodomor Genocide in 1932-33, large numbers of Russians, as a reward for their loyalty, were systematically resettled onto resource-rich Ukraine. It also helped bolster Moscow’s influence in the region,” says Oksana Bondarchuk, President of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress – Manitoba Provincial Council.
“However years of Soviet propaganda that promoted unity, albeit with Russian dominance, had largely erased the ethnic divide. For an aspiring middle class, a better life with the comforts of the western world became of greater relevance,” explains Bondarchuk. “But the Yanukovych regime took its orders directly from Moscow and created disharmony amongst the east and western parts of Ukraine.”
Bondarchuk has no doubt the ongoing unrests in eastern Ukraine are orchestrated by Moscow, substantiating it’s relentless political interference in the region. She thinks the demonstrators are Russian citizens, being paid for their efforts to create dissension amongst the citizens of Ukraine.
Bondarchuk dismisses the official results of the Crimea referendum released by Russia.
“Crimea is an autonomous region of Ukraine, whose native inhabitants are the Tatars. They were expelled from Crimea during the Stalinist reign of terror, and only returned in the 1960’s,” she says.
“The 93% support for the referendum claimed by Moscow is a sham. The real turnout was much lower than what Putin wants the world to believe. Tatars and Ukrainians, who together comprise 43% of the Crimean population, boycotted the vote. But Russian citizens holding Russian passports were allowed to vote in Ukraine’s Crimean referendum. How unbiased is that?” asks Bondarchuk.
A prominent Tatar leader, Mustafa Jemilev, has also claimed that that no more than 34% of the population actually turned out to vote in the ‘pseudo referendum.’ He said that Russian agents have sent a secret report to Moscow about the ground realities of the referendum.
Crimeans were given one month to make a choice: either take up Russian citizenship, or remain Ukrainian and apply for a residence permit. For many like Rayevska’s family, it’s a conflict between the head and the heart.
“In the end, I think pragmatism will prevail,” she says. “Refusing Russian citizenship and remaining loyal to Ukraine will leave those people in an unprivileged position. The vulnerable groups of society, especially those concerned about their financial provision are the first to secure themselves by siding with the mighty one. For most others too, adapting to the changed reality might outweigh sentiments and ideological affiliations.”
Rayevska is apprehensive. She’s afraid non-Russians will be arm twisted into submitting to Moscow’s rule. Ethnic Ukrainians, Tatars and others residing in Crimea who refuse to become Russian citizens will be left to play second fiddle in the society and government. The dissenting ones will likely face the wrath of the powers that be, she says, and in the end, they might have to sell their property and other assets at a throwaway price, and resettle in mainland Ukraine or elsewhere.
As Ukraine remains on the boil, Rayevska is relieved that she doesn’t have to return home just yet. Her course at the university will keep her in Canada for another year. If things in Ukraine change for the worse, it may prompt her to contemplate settling down in Winnipeg.