BALAKLAVA, Ukraine — Like many in this navy town on the very southern edge of Ukraine, 44-year-old Alexi Glebov makes a point of the fact that he was born in the Soviet Union. And, also like many here, he says he never believed he would die outside of Russia.
“This referendum is important,” he said, speaking of a vote scheduled for Sunday that the United States and European nations are furiously trying to stop from taking place, a vote that will result in Crimea saying it has severed ties to Ukraine. “Here, we believe in Mother Russia. That we weren’t seen by others as Russians for these past 20-some years was the mistake. We were always Russian. This vote will just make it official.”
Technically, the vote won’t necessarily align Crimea with Russia. But no matter how the vote goes, the ties to Ukraine will be loosened.
Voters who make it to the hastily organized polling places Sunday will receive a freshly printed paper ballot. They will have the option of checking one of two boxes. One box will indicate a vote in favor of Crimea joining the Russian Federation. The other box will indicate a desire to return to Crimea’s 1992 constitution, a document that was replaced in 1994 by one that tightened the connection between Crimea and Ukraine.
Under the old constitution, Crimea made its own foreign and trade policies. There was a loose connection to Ukraine, but it was essentially an independent republic, Ukrainian in name only. After 1994, Crimea became an autonomous region inside Ukraine, one that shared Ukrainian national policies.
At the very least, this vote — while not recognized by Ukraine or Western nations — will change that relationship.
But few see the lesser option as being victorious. Voters are really of one of two opinions in Crimea: Stay with Ukraine or join with Russia. As the only way to voice the first opinion is to abstain from voting — as Crimean Tatars say they will — the percentage of voters opting to secede from Ukraine and join with Russia is expected to be overwhelming.
The Crimean population, after all, is between 50 percent and 60 percent ethnic Russian. In the southern parts of the region, there is very little Ukrainian used. Billboards and shops advertise in Russian. On the streets, people default to speaking Russian.
Glebov said that one reason many elderly here are excited for the change is that they are tired of products reaching them from Kiev that come in Ukrainian packaging, which he said they complain of being difficult to understand.
On the shore, fishing off a high wall, Yevgeny Popov, 32, said it was obvious from the lack of stress in the community — over what would seem like such a big deal — that the vote is an easy choice here.
“When the Soviet Union made Crimea a part of Ukraine it didn’t matter, we were all part of a single community,” he said. “But that changed when the Soviet Union collapsed. It is time to return this land to Russia.”
The fishermen standing around him agree: “Everyone wants to return to Russia. There’s no real argument here.”
Travel the roads of Crimea and that would appear to be the point. There doesn’t appear to be a single pro-Ukrainian banner or billboard left on the peninsula. The pro-Russia billboards are everywhere, and more are being put up every hour.
In areas of Crimea that have sizable Tatar populations (overall about 12 percent of Crimea is Tatar), the signs are bright and happy. “Together with Russia,” one states over a waving Russian flag. “This Spring with Russia,” in Russian colors and a bouquet of flowers, reads another.
But down near the heavily pro-Russian coast, where Tatars are still often remembered as traitors against the Soviet Union because some fought with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis against Josef Stalin and the Red Army, the signs get more sinister.
One proclaims: “Stop. Fascism won’t pass here. Let’s all go to the referendum.” The message shows sinister dark feet invading Crimea from the Ukrainian mainland. Another is less subtle. The image shows a blood-red Crimea wrapped in barbed wire next to a cheery, Russian flag-draped Crimea, with the words, “On March 16 we chose either … or … “
And yet another shows a crossed-out swastika, a crossed-out symbol for an insurgent army and a crossed-out symbol for the Ukrainian Right Sector (which took part in the monthslong protests in Kiev that toppled the former government and are tied by Russians to far-right extremism) and the words “Stop Fascism.”
The speed with which the campaign has spread is impressive. The vote was only announced for Sunday a week ago. In election offices around Crimea, orders from the Crimean Parliament ordering preparations for the vote only reached regional offices on Monday.
One election official noted that not a single of his regular polling places had electricity or a working land-line phone. Another was copying information from a pile of folders onto needed forms. “Oh, it looks impossible, but you don’t know us, we’ll get it finished,” she said, between barking orders at co-workers and over the phone.
Ilmi Umer, the managing governor of the Bakhchisaray district, said that those like him who are strongly opposed to the vote, and favor Crimea staying within Ukraine, know they are facing a losing battle.
“It’s not a real vote,” he said. “A real vote would offer a real choice: Either stay with Ukraine, or go with Russia. This instead is political cover for a Russian invasion and occupation. That is all it is.”