Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

"Anything Can Happen" in Crimea – Rights Activist

Interview with human rights defender Dmitry Makarov.
By Daniella Peled
  • Paramilitaries in Cossack hats in Simferopol, March 14, 2014. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
    Paramilitaries in Cossack hats in Simferopol, March 14, 2014. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Dmitry Makarov recently arrived in Simferopol as part of the Crimean Field Mission of the International Group of Human Rights Defenders on the Situation in Ukraine – a body formed in November by some 20 different OSCE countries to monitor the unrest. He spoke to IWPR editor Daniella Peled about the human rights situation in Crimea ahead of the March 16 referendum there, and his fears of what might follow. 

What is your mission in Crimea?

At the moment we are trying to compile information about pressures on journalists, human rights defenders and civil society activists and produce an overview of the human rights situation, in order to draw international attention to this aspect. In part, we are trying to inform Russian-speakers as there isn’t really adequate or objective information in Russian.

Ukrainian channels and various local TV channels have had their frequencies taken away in Crimea. A colleague just called me from Sevastopol to tell me that an NGO working with journalists was raided, apparently by Crimea security forces.

We are also trying to draw attention to the disappearances. Some local human rights activists were taken away by people wearing military clothing, the so-called self-defence forces, or as the prime minister [Sergei Aksenov] describes them, the special forces.

There have been reports of eight disappearances, of whom we can confirm six individuals have been released. They report that they were taken by uniformed men, interrogated and then taken to Ukraine proper and released. A group of journalists were treated similarly and returned to Kiev.

There are also reports of journalists not being allowed to enter Crimea at all, or when they exit, having their materials including flash cards taken away from them. These reports are coming in every day.

Ukrainian media organisations are very concerned about the situation. There is also the issue of representatives from international organisations. We heard that officials representing the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights were not allowed to enter Crimea on March 13, for what were called security reasons.

We are trying to mobilise as many international observers as possible to go to Crimea, because we don’t yet have the capacity to produce an extensive report ourselves.

What are the main sources of tension on the ground?

The situation is one of an absence of authority. It’s not very clear who controls the people patrolling the streets. Some are armed with batons or knives, although I haven’t seen any guns.

Some demonstrations across Crimea have been attacked and people have been beaten up on the streets. There are people wearing Cossack uniforms, and there are others in the uniform of the Berkut riot police, which was disbanded after the Kiev protests. In Crimea, the Berkut continue to exist, or at least they continue to wear the uniform.

There is a still a lot of tension around the military bases. Ukrainian military forces have been prevented from leaving their bases, and water and other services have been cut off in some cases. Some locals and activists from elsewhere in Ukraine are trying to bring in food and supplies to the soldiers.

The largest problem at the moment is that people act with impunity. There is no boss. It isn’t clear where the people seized by the security forces are taken and there’s no way of communicating with them.

In the case of one activist, Andrei Schekun, the prime minister has confirmed he has been taken into custody but it’s still not clear by whom.

What are you expecting to happen around this Sunday’s referendum?

We are quite concerned that there will be patches of violence, especially directed at observers – if there are any – or at journalists trying to report. There is no procedure for official accreditation.

And there might also be violence after the referendum, depending on the results, although we can predict those.

The campaigning on the streets - the posters and placards – are aimed at one outcome, for Crimea to vote to join Russia. In reality, the majority of the population here sides with Russia. It’s a question of legality and of how the minorities are treated.

Pro-Russian sentiment is clearly in the majority and there are fears that the Ukrainian speaking population or the Crimean Tatars will face threats and intimidation. There have been tensions among minorities here for quite some time, and the fear is that these will be exacerbated.

There are also reports of military movements around the Russia-Ukraine border. That’s a whole different issue related to the general pressure and hostility.

Anything can happen. We are hoping there will be no violence. 

Daniella Peled is an IWPR editor in London.