SIMFEROPOL, Crimea — Vait Sitdzhemiliev brought his wife and three daughters to Crimea to honor a deathbed wish from his father six years ago. Now, waking today in a land officially annexed by Russia, the Crimean Tatar is worried about what is to come.
He fears for the eight tidy guestrooms he has built for sun-seeking vacationers. He worries about how Russian neighbors will behave now that they’re in Moscow’s embrace. Most of all, he frets over what lies ahead for his daughters, three hard-working students in their 20s.
“We Crimean Tatars have never gotten anything good from the Kremlin,” said Sitdzhemiliev, a 49-year-old entrepreneur.
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Nonetheless, he has decided to stay. Crimea is his ancestral homeland: His parents were among the tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars deported en masse by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and he brought his family here from Uzbekistan six years ago on his dying father’s request.
Sitdzhemiliev’s choice mirrors that of the majority of members of minority populations in ethnic Russian-dominated Crimea — at least so far. Ukrainian Orthodox Archbishop Kliment of Simferopol and Crimea says that there has been no exodus by those fearful of Moscow’s takeover. But the future fills the archbishop with dread — and the present has shaken his faith in God: “The worst is that when people ask me to,” he said, “I can’t guarantee their safety.”
His network of clergy has reported the departure of about 200 people, among them three priests, in recent weeks, mostly from the farming country of northeastern Crimea. About 40 percent of Crimea’s population of 2 million is not Russian — mostly ethnic Ukrainians, Tatars and Belarusians.
“It’s not massive. Yesterday a family, today another, tomorrow yet another,” the archbishop told The Associated Press. If Crimeans ask him what to do, the 44-year-old Kliment advises the young to leave and the old to stay until somebody can return for them. He’s afraid that ethnic Ukrainians, who make up about a fourth of Crimea’s total population, may become a “human shield” exploited by the Kremlin and their allies to stymie any attempt by Ukraine to retake control.
Whatever the future brings, the archbishop said, “I’ll be here to the last.”
Members of the ethnic Russia majority were jubilant over Crimea’s official change in status, which the United States and other Western nations are refusing to recognize because they dispute the legality of the secession referendum.
People from other ethnic groups — and Crimea has more than 100 by some counts — are staying for several reasons, Kliment said. First among them is economic. Many fear leaving their homes behind — or being robbed of their belongings by armed Russian militiamen as they flee. Renting a moving truck costs the equivalent of $1,000. That’s out of reach for many. And some families simply have nowhere to go.
On Monday, Ukrainian First Vice Premier Vitaly Yarema said that the country was preparing for a possible “humanitarian catastrophe” caused by a flood of refugees from Crimea. To cope, some vacation resorts are being converted to emergency housing. And Ukraine has asked for humanitarian assistance from other countries, including the United States, Yarema said.
“If people express the desire to relocate to the mainland area of Ukraine, we will not leave them in need, and we’ll do all we can so they can rebuild their lives in other places,” Yarema was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying in a news conference.
Such declarations may sound reassuring, Kliment said. But until now, there has been no firm commitment by Ukraine’s government to pay people’s relocation costs or compensate them for homes and other property they leave behind. Without such a guarantee, he said, some families may elect to stay put.
Around 20 local Ukrainians — “the flower of our intelligentsia in Crimea” — have disappeared in recent days, their whereabouts unknown, according to the archbishop. He’s also worried that Crimea’s new leaders may no longer let his Kiev-based denomination rent the converted military academy that now houses the Cathedral of Saints Vladimir and Olga.
To maintain his spiritual strength, Kliment is reading 10 Psalms a day and saying prayers to the Virgin Mary. At night, when he is home in his apartment, he says he waits for “a knock on the door” from people come to arrest or abduct him. His family was also deported under Stalin, and sent to the Urals.
Yevgen Sukhodolsky, 21, a government prosecutor in the western city of Saki, told The AP by email he has decided to stay put for the time being, despite uncertainties about his job prospects. Even before Sunday’s referendum, he said, the Russians had taken over the justice system — and put the peninsula’s overall administration in the hands of a man with a murky past linked to organized crime.
“I am a citizen of Ukraine and a government civil servant,” Sukhodolsky said. “It’s understood that I will not work for an alien government.” Unmarried and without children, he lives with his parents and a grandmother.
“If conditions for us become truly life-threatening,” the prosecutor said, “we will be obligated to leave.”
For the past seven weeks, Michael Nevnerzhytskyy has worked as executive chef at Yenot, a 100-seat restaurant in Simferopol that specializes in “farm-to-table sustainable fare.” He is a local native — as well as a graduate of Catonsville High School in Maryland, Class of ‘07.
“When my parents got divorced, Mom and me moved to America,” said Nevmerzhytskyy, 23. After a decade spent without seeing much of his father, he said, he decided to return to Crimea so he could be close to the retired police lieutenant colonel.
He’s not very political, the French-trained cook said, but his priorities are clear.
“I’m not leaving,” Nevmerzhyrskyy said. “I’m staying with my dad.”