Tatars stay away in Bakhchysaray as pro-Russians vote en masse

16th March 2014, Comments 0 comments

Elvira slips her ballot -- with her vote to join Crimea to Russia -- into a transparent box. She puts her Ukrainian passport back in her bag, convinced she has just used it for the last time.

In Bakhchysaray, the main centre of Crimea's native Muslim Tatar community, Russian-speakers are the only people turning up at the polls on Sunday, as Tatars have decided to boycott the referendum.

Elvira is at the polling station early with her teenage children and says she hopes the vote will afford them a better future.

"These two are going to grow up in Russia and that's a good thing," she says, her hands on her son and daughter's shoulders.

"They will have more opportunities, more prospects. It's a rich and powerful country," she says. "This is the last time I use my Ukrainian passport. At least I hope so."

The majority Muslim Tatar population in the inland city of 25,000 has stayed at home on the cold and rainy referendum day.

With the mass deportations by Stalin in 1944 still fresh in their memories, Tatars have opposed Crimea becoming part of Russia from the start and called for a boycott of Sunday's referendum, which Ukraine's government has deemed illegal.

"Of course we won't vote. I won't go and I think all the Tatars of Crimea won't go either," Dilyara Seitvelieva, the community's representative in Bakhchysara, tells AFP.

"I don't need this referendum, I will not go and vote. My life's good as it is," an elderly man agrees on his way to pray at the small Mahmud Sami mosque.

In Bakhchysaray and elsewhere around the Black Sea peninsula, Tatars have loudly voiced their opposition to the referendum, waving Ukraine's blue and yellow flag on roadsides and urging a boycott.

Crimean Tatar leader Refat Chubarov denounces the referendum, telling Inter television on Sunday: "We, Crimean Tatars, have never taken part in clown shows and circuses."

- 'Our place is in Russia' -

But at a polling station just a stone's throw from the main mosque, Russian-speakers have turned out in droves.

Anyone can vote: those whose name is not on the large voter registration lists can just ask the electoral commission secretary who then checks their Ukrainian passport and writes down their names and addresses in purple ink on a loose sheet of paper.

One hour after the polling station opens, her list already carries about 40 names.

Voting booths stand to the side but voting secrecy doesn't seem a priority as ballots are cast without envelopes, rarely folded and with the voter's choice clearly visible to all.

The ballot papers then go into large transparent boxes, simply secured with string and a wax seal.

Among a dozen votes observed by AFP, not a single one opposes unification with Russia.

"It's a good thing," says 37-year-old Svitlana Nikitina, who was born in Bakhchysaray but now works in advertising in Simferopol, some 30 kilometres (19 miles) away.

"Kiev made us do our advertising campaigns in Ukrainian, but everybody or almost everybody here speaks Russian," she says.

"That made no sense. We have nothing to do with the European Union. We are Slavs, our culture is Russian, our place is in Russia."

Anna Ivanovna, 70, also voted to join Moscow, but is more apprehensive: "Yes, we will be Russians. It's good but at the same time, at my age, it's hard to change countries."

"I like my habits, my routines. It frightens me a little... We'll see."

This is not an opinion shared by Ivan Konstantinovich, 71, who is among the first to vote.

After casting his ballot, he raises his hands in a sign of victory and declares: "We've waited for this moment for years."

© 2014 AFP

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