SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine â€” Olga Filipenko, a pensioner who struggles to get by on just over $100 a month, says a president like Russia’s Vladimir Putin would be a “godsend.”
“Everyone here deifies him,” she said of her friends in her dilapidated housing complex where she has given up trying to get local authorities to fix the rutted roadways. “We’ve never had a president who actually does something for his people.”
Crimea prepared to vote Sunday on whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, or demand more autonomy, in what European foreign ministers have called the greatest political crisis in decades.
President Obama and the European Union have said they will not recognize the vote and are threatening to sanction Moscow. Ukraine has lashed out at Putin for intimidating Crimeans by placing Russian troops around the border of the Ukraine province.
But for those leaning toward voting in favor of the referendum, many of whom are ethnic Russian, it’s not about Mother Russia but about having a country that provides what they expect from government â€” good benefits and a decent economy.
Propaganda handouts fill the streets here touting claims that Russia has better wages and pensions, and a huge economy. But Russia’s economy is in a recession and has seen a significant drop in investment and a decrease in incomes, according to the BBC.
The value of the ruble is dropping and inflation is expected to rise as a result. The Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, an independent think tank in Moscow, says the Russian economy will grow no faster than 2% per year until 2016 under the best-case scenario.
Such information is not well known here, where more than half of Crimeans are ethnic Russians. Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev gave it to then-Soviet Ukraine, which declared independence when the Communist dictatorship dissolved in 1991 and became modern Russia.
The presence of pro-Russian views here underscores a tangled mix of ethnic, linguistic and economic differences that are dividing this peninsula.
“I’m a Ukrainian, our family was deported from here by (Soviet leader Joseph) Stalin, but I’m still for Russia,” said Galina Stadnechuk, who was selling herbal teas on a seaside boardwalk in the neighboring coastal town of Alushta.
“I still think Crimea should be part of Russia,” she said.
Filipenko is ethnically Russian; her husband of nearly 50 years, Yevgeny, is Ukrainian. Yet even he plans to vote for Crimea joining Russia in the referendum.
“You’re probably asking, how come I’m Ukrainian and supporting Crimea joining Russia Ukraine,” says Yevgeny, a youthful-looking former factory director in his 70s. “But I just don’t see Ukraine having a future as a state.”
Months-long demonstrations in Ukraine’s capital of Kiev, which toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovych and replaced it with a pro-Western interim government headed by Oleksandr Turchynov, has exacerbated divisions here that had lain dormant.
Days after Yanukovych was ousted Feb. 22, clashes erupted in Simferopol between pro-Russians and ethnic Tatars, Muslims who largely despise Russia.
The Tatars once ruled Crimea but fell under Russian domination in the late 18th century. Stalin deported 200,000 Tatars to the east, mostly Siberia, in the 1940s. Half of them died during or after the journey from disease, thirst and hunger.
Many of the Tatars descendants returned to Crimea shortly before the Soviet Union fell in 1991. When Crimea’s parliament appointed a pro-Russian businessman Sergei Aksyonov as prime minister after the ouster of Yanukovych, the Tatars sided with Kiev and its interim president Oleksandr Turchynov.
For days now, Russia-aligned forces have patrolled the city sporadically, mostly gathering around government buildings. The forces were mostly made up of men in camouflage who said they were members of a local volunteer militia that organized last month with support from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is located here through a lease with Ukraine.
Crimean Cossacks, a heavily traditionalist ethnic and military community that has traditionally supported the Russian empire, also patrolled government buildings.
“It’s scary, very scary,” said Adelina Taryeva, an ethnic Tatar who was protesting against the referendum with several hundred other Ukrainians and Tatars. “Our only hope is on the international community and Obama. Putin needs to be stopped.”
Putin obtained approval on March 1 to send troops to Ukraine in case it was necessary to protect the Russian-speaking population there. He said it was unlikely that force would be used, but Kiev says such troops are already in Crimea, making up the forces that have blocked all border crossings into Crimea.
Russia’s parliament has welcomed the referendum, and Moscow lawmakers have pledged to give dual citizenship to Crimeans if they vote in favor of the referendum.
Adelina Taryieva, an entrepreneur in her forties who runs a store in Simferopol, doesn’t believe things will get better economically with Russia.
“My mother still lives in Russia on a tiny pension,” she said.
She said she will not vote in the referendum because an option of staying within Ukraine is not given.
Gulzara Elmirova says she doesn’t believe very many people want to join Russia.
“They only want to join because there are armed men who support them,” she said. “If we didn’t have these troops, people would come out protesting (against the referendum) in larger numbers. But they’re scared.”
Aider Zekiryayev laments that the whole situation is Ukraine is turning good people against one another.
“I’ve been living here since 1991,” said Zekiryayev, 39, a taxi driver whose wife is pregnant with a second child. “Everyone lived together, we got along.
“But now people are giving me strange looks.”