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 Chronicles over 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 hotel indicates 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 in climate, 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.