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On “polite people”, Crimean Spring and refusal to take Ukrainian oath of allegiance
- Are you a polite person?
- Beyond doubt. And I always try to be an example for others to follow. Should I take any liberties, how will I be able to demand my subordinates abide by the rules? The leader is at the heart of all. The people look at the one at the helm and make conclusions.
Ours is a tourist region. Should we wear gloomy expressions, should we be rude to arriving guests and toss back guests’ passports at the reception desk, we will hardly see anyone eager to spend a holiday here.
- After March 2014 the term “polite people” took on a new meaning in Crimea.
- Quite right. It is utterly unnecessary to put these two words inside the quotation marks or use it in combination with the derogatory attribute “so-called”. The Russian military personnel who arrived here three years ago demonstrated impeccable conduct. No raids or violent crackdowns in Simferopol or elsewhere in Crimea. They acted with great accuracy and precision and in strict compliance with the rules of morality and ethics. Without much-a-do. They did a perfect job. It was a truly polite demonstration of strength. I’d say that operation was ideal. The stars were lucky!
Firstly, President Vladimir Putin kept the march of events under his own control. Secondly, most of the Crimeans love Russia and their long-cherished dream was to reunite with their motherland. Many said so outright. Thirdly, the armed seizure of power in Ukraine forced the Crimeans to act fast to protect their interests. You surely remember that a ban on the use of the Russian language in the whole territory of Ukraine was one of the first legal acts proposed for adoption by the Ukrainian parliament after Yanukovich was ousted. There was no intention of taking into account the opinion of eastern and southeastern regions. Instead of building bridges of understanding and seeking compromises wedges began to be driven between opponents. Threats were uttered of sending trainfuls of Banderite thugs here, cynically called "trains of friendship".
Tensions climaxed when the bodies of three men who had served in the Berkut crack police and the Interior Ministry’ Troops were brought to Crimea, their birthplace for burial. All had been killed in Kiev. The local people’s reaction was very painful. The funeral ceremony took place on February 22. The bodies had been delivered a couple of days before that. Everything looked very uncertain. The pendulum could swing either way, but for the Russian president, who kept the situation under personal control.
- And whom of the “polite people” you chanced to meet first?
- Igor Mikhailichenko. He was one of the group’s commanders. Now he is my deputy in Crimea’s Council of Ministers. I still keep in touch with other “polite” guys. We shared quite a few experiences that spring. We walked a very brief but bright way together.
- You are almost a career military officer by profession, aren’t you?
- I spent four years studying at the Military-Political Engineering Academy in Simferopol. I did not get a graduation certificate, though.
- I refused to take an oath of allegiance to Ukraine. My original hope had been I would get an assignment in Moscow, but the authorities in Kiev changed everything. That was in 1993, the Academy’s last graduation course. In fact, the academy ceased to exist afterwards.
Those were the days, I should say. Memories of August 1991 are still fresh. Our company was on duty at the Academy. On the very first day of the coup we received an order to take Mikhail Gorbachev’s portrait off the wall and hide it somewhere. But on August 21 nervous commanders urged us to put the Soviet president’s photo back in its place. We were witnesses to history being written in front of our very eyes.
In 1989, I had taken an oath of allegiance to the Soviet Union. When the country broke up, I made a decision that I would not go to serve in the Ukrainian army by any means. In fact, there was none at the moment. I had a big quarrel with some officers, who interpreted the current situation in a very weird way. Leaving the academy was the best solution of all.
- But did you get an officer’s rank in the end?
- No, ranks were to be awarded upon graduation. I left earlier. I’d passed three state exams and stopped, well aware all further efforts would not be worthwhile.
I’d hoped to become what was then called political officer, the one responsible for the subordinate’s ideology and morale and for providing psychological support. I underwent good professional training - the full course of lectures required. My Academy’s graduates can be found all over the country. At the most unexpected places! Including the staff of the Russian president and Government. Vitaly Pavlyuchenko, who was the Academy’s commander when I was admitted and studied, is currently in Moscow. He works together with Boris Gromov in the Battle Brotherhood society. And another of my former commanders, Stepan Gaidarzhiysky, was appointed in charge of the National Guard in Crimea last autumn. It was he and his subordinates that we held first talks at the end of February 2014. It was essential to prevent bloodshed and an armed conflict with the Ukrainian military. Stepan was deputy commander of the Ukrainian Interior Troops’ territorial division. I phoned him and we agreed to meet at once. Without losing a minute. A great deal depended on the right understanding of the situation, self-control and civic position of each officer and rank-and-file man. Any unintentional or provocative shot would have been enough to trigger a massacre. It is a remarkble achievement we managed to prevent that from happening.
- Were you aware that in case of your defeat you would be locked up in jail in Ukraine for long?
- Of course, I was aware. There was no other way out.
- Why, there was one. To follow in Baron Wrangel’s footsteps to board the last ship for Istanbul.
- No, fleeing for life is against my nature. My colleagues know well: I’ve never tried to hide behind other people’s backs. Also, you should remember I had my family here.
- You could have arranged for their evacuation in advance.
- They would’ve refused to go. I wouldn’t have been left alone. Besides, all of them, my wife, my children and my parents were taking a very active stance and participating in the peninsula’s political affairs. I had no intention of escaping anyway. I told myself: I’d rather die than abandon what I’d decided to accomplish. True, the outcome was anyone’s guess, but we had confidence in Russia and in President Putin.
In those days I heard many people say the declaration of Crimea’s independence was the point where we should stop. That we should leave Ukraine but not join Russia. As you may remember, the referendum was originally scheduled for May 25. Had we decided to wait till that date, there might have been terrible bloodshed. Ukraine’s military contingent in Crimea numbered 22,000, including more than 19,000 strangers from other parts of Ukraine. True, Russia would’ve eventually defended its interests, but at what cost? Putin made a political decision to act fast and go to the bitter end.
- How do you account for the fact that in 2010 your movement Russian Unity collected just four percent of the votes in the election to the Crimean legislature, while on March 16, 2014 an absolute majority of those who participated in the referendum on Crimea’s future status backed the proposal for joining Russia?
- The explanation for the moderate returns from the 2010 vote is simple. It was a result of manipulations by the Party of Regions and a rigged election process.
Let me remind you: Russian Unity came up with its new brand just thirty-one days before the elections. Has there ever been another political party project that might have gained enough publicity over such a brief period of time and receive enough votes for its members to take seats in parliament? We wished to create a so-called Russian Bloc that would incorporate Crimea’s Russian community and a number of pro-Russian organizations and to present a common front in the election. But the Party of Regions prohibited the NGO’s from participating in an attempt to cut the ground from under our feet. We were unable to use our old charter documents, so we had to improvise on the way, to make harsh decisions, to acquire a clean party registered at the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice, to promptly rename it, to rebrand it and to instantly join the election campaign. In the end Russian Unity achieved the proclaimed goal. We created groups of deputies in all districts and cities of the peninsula. My hat’s off to those who have managed to accomplish the same faster than we did.
Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov at a news conference in Simferopol, March 2014EPA/ARTUR SHVARTS
You may take a look at my interviews I was giving in those days and the replies I addressed to my opponents, who tried to ridicule us over the tiny four percent of the votes for the Russian party. We participated in that election on our own, without any support from the Russian authorities. In 2010 we in fact achieved the maximum result. Later on we kept building up our activity. In the subsequent four years Russian Unity held the greatest number of mass actions. In 2013 the Party of Regions made a sharp turn to start campaigning for Ukraine’s integration with the European Union, while we remained the only ones who appeared on the streets and squares to say outright that the future of Crimea is related with Russia. Our activists picketed the republican parliament, demanding the legislators should protect the interests of Crimea’s residents.
By March 2014 the situation turned fundamentally different. The events in Kiev played a certain role. Crimea’s people would hate to see something like that happen on their own land. Russia made its stance very clear. For over more than twenty years following the breakup of the Soviet Union the authorities had deceived Crimea’s people so many times that the fear it might be just another trap still lingered, but the tide of emotion was really strong. Russian Unity’s rating soared. We had never revised our political stance. We pushed ahead with our policy regardless of the current political situation – a policy we had proclaimed the moment when the party was founded and started gaining its feet.
Starting from January 1 all attempts at turning Simferopol into a scene of something like maidain protests in Kiev began to be quashed. Russian Unity activists and supporters were taking turns on the streets to keep them under control. True, on some occasions harsh action had to be taken, but in that type of situation no other measures would work. Over just two months Crimea’s self-defense took shape as a force in its own right. On February 23 it obtained legal registration and on the 26th it managed to put up solid resistance. It prevented the seizure of the State Council Building and eliminated the risk of large-scale clashes between Crimean residents of different nationalities. Kicking out a group of militants from Kiev out of Crimea was far easier than preventing an inter-ethnic conflict in the peninsula. It should have been prevented by all means. People on both sides had braced themselves for the worst scenario. In front of the State Council Building we kept two busses loaded with police shields and gas masks in case of an emergency. Fortunately, we would never have to use the gear.