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Ukraine

Crimea unites in pro-Russia stance

Ahead of the secession referendum, it is almost certain that Crimea will vote in favor of uniting with Russia. No voices of opposition have been heard on the peninsula in recent days.

"The Island of Crimea" is the title of a dissident novel by Russian writer Vasily Aksyonov. It came out in 1979 and tells the story of a Crimea that is independent from the Soviet Union and the tragic consequences of its unification with the USSR. Some parallels can be drawn between this story and recent events in Crimea.

It is still possible to travel to Crimea's capital, Simferopol, by train from Kyiv, but all flights between the two cities have been canceled. The pro-Moscow authorities in Simferopol have claimed that the move was necessary to prevent the arrival of "provocateurs" from Kyiv and western Ukraine. The ban also applies to Turkish airlines operating flights between Crimea and Turkey - a connection popular with Crimean Tatars.

Flights to and from Moscow, however, are operating normally. Russian airline Aeroflot has introduced lager planes on the Moscow-Simferopol route, which is largely booked out at the moment. The flight now lasts around 20 minutes longer than usual because Aeroflot, for security reasons, is taking a route that is mostly within Russian airspace.

Putin's promoters

A flight departures screen at Simferopol International Airport

Many flights to and from Simferopol have been canceled by local authorities

Onboard one of these flights is the Sretensky Monastery Choir, which recently sang the Russian national anthem at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

"The Russian Ministry of Culture asked us to perform in Crimea this weekend to support the referendum," explained one of the choir's younger members. "Of course, we are being exploited for political purposes, but what can we do? It's a pity that that we probably won't be giving any more concerts in Ukraine after this."

The choristers are not the only ones who have come to Crimea for the weekend. Russian politicians and sports stars such as tennis champion Marat Safin and former boxing champion Nikolai Valuev have been promoting Crimea's unification with Russia in recent days. Valuev, a member of Putin's party in the Russian parliament, has been making talk-show appearances and speaking to local press. Meanwhile, Vitali Klitschko, a former Ukrainian boxing star and leader of the pro-European Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, has been declared "an unwelcome person" by Crimean authorities.

Blatant propaganda

The day before the referendum is officially a blackout period - a time when political campaigning is not permitted. But there are no illusions that the election will be a fair one. Local pro-Russian propaganda has been rife, with various speakers addressing the public - one recently through a loudspeaker on Simferopol's central square, calling on Crimeans to "make the right choice on March 16." This "right choice" was displayed on a large screen displaying the colors of the Russian flag. The city was also plastered with posters bearing slogans such as "Together with Russia" and "Crimea. Russia. Spring."

A screen mounted on a building in Simferopol displaying a pro-Russia message

The local pre-election propaganda tells voters to make the right choice

The Russian and Crimean flags blending together to form a heart - this image has appeared on a regular basis on local television. From news bulletins to commercials, Crimean TV airwaves have been focused on promoting Crimea's unification with Russia. Responding to a query from a DW reporter about where pro-Ukrainian campaigning can be found, Crimea's new prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, said, "I'm not aware of any requests for this in local television."

Aksyonov did not mention that access to Ukrainian TV channels has been blocked in Crimea for the past week. They have been replaced by Russian state television channels, which describes Ukraine's new leaders as "fascists" and "nationalists."

Crimea's new leadership

It is a striking irony that that Aksyonov carries the same surname as the dissident author of "The Island of Crimea." He represents the local Russian Unity party and in the last election only managed to attract 4 percent of the votes, but now he has a wide media presence and can be sure of an election outcome in his favor.

At the press conference on Friday, Aksyonov looked lively and alert - something astonishing, considering that he claimed to have slept no more than 10 hours in total in the past week. He answered the journalists' questions quickly and concisely. He said he knew nothing about the disappearance of Maidan activists in Crimea. And as for attacks on journalists, including foreign ones, he said he believed many of them only had themselves to blame as the "self-defense" forces in Crimea shouldn't be "provoked."

A poster in Simferopol bearing the message, Together with Russia. Referendum on March 16.

The majority of Crimeans seems to be in favor of Crimea joining Russia

Locals support secession

The people on the streets of Simferopol have been looking relaxed over the past few days. Taxi drivers, shopkeepers, waiters and cleaners alike - many people are surprised that the referendum has come so soon. "Now they are all euphoric," said Elena, an ethnic Russian who owns a small cigarette distribution business.

She is worried about her 15-year-old son Vladimir. "He has grown up as a Ukrainian - his homeland is Ukraine," she said. "Now he will have to get used to the new homeland."

Meanwhile, 20-year-old Vitali complained that "Ukraine turned its back" on Crimea: the wages are low and the roads are in bad condition. Things will be better under Moscow's rule, he said.

Vitali and his friends rode through Simferopol on motorbikes with Russian flags on Friday evening. They said they were all keen to take part in Sunday's referendum.

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