Bakhchysarai. Now You’re With Us. Now You’re Not.

Long overdue translation of my interview with Ilimi Umerov, head of Regional Administration of Bakhchysarai, who decided to boycott the referendum. Ironically, I post it here on the day when referendum is held. 

by Ekaterina Sergatskova, Ukrainian Pravda. Life.
Originally published in Russian:

It is unusually quiet next to the military base in Bakhchysarai. It’s so quiet, it gets suspicious. There are no “self defense forces,” no Russian Cossacks, no “green military men.”  All of them are not around. That’s because they are already inside, behind the fence. Armed, quiet men in black masks are walking side by side along Ukrainian soldiers.

Creepy feeling.

As if you come home one day, but someone else is already lives in your house:  cooking dinner in your kitchen, wiping their hands with your clean crispy towels…

On March 9th, during the car-rally held by pro-Russian activists in Bakhchysarai, Vladimir Sadovnik, commander in charge of Bakhchysarai Ukrainian military base, crashed his bike into the cars, while being completely drunk, according to the witnesses. Just after the accident, for some unclear reason, he was taken to the Simferopol military enlistment station, and was held there for at least 24 hours.

When he came back to the base the next day, some of the Russian military men and their “support squad” of so-called “Crimean Self Defense” were welcoming him already from the inside of the base. Sadovnik offered to soldiers and officers to decide each one of them personally which side to take. Sadovnik’s own words, half of the base personnel turned to the Russian side, this is why Russians [occupants] were welcome inside the base.

“They were shooting at us, while taking over the base. Now they’ve already got through the gates, – tells the commander, – and they live there now, live just in our barracks.”

Sadovnik sports a black eye, but I can’t tell whether he got it during the fight after the crash or while staying in the recruitment office. Although he still thinks that it is just a simple coincidence that the base was captured while he was away.

From the military base I went straight to the office of the head of Bakhchysarai regional administration. Walking across the city, I didn’t meet a single person on my way. Even the administration building was deserted.

Ilimi Umerov is sitting quietly in his chair.

You’re one of the officials who are publicly boycotting the referendum. How effective do you think your position is and how does the rest of the city react to it?

Boycotting is not always effective. It is only an opinion or position…

He stops the conversation to sign the letters addressed to Turchinov and Yatsenyuk (Interim president and interim prime minister of Ukraine.) In this letters he asks them not to recognize the results of the referendum and to order Crimean officials not to follow orders of criminals. After that, he signs an address to Bakhchysarai residents, asking them to boycott the referendum.


Boycotting the referendum – it’s a position that won’t always be effective to stop it from happening. If it’s just me boycotting, even if I’m the head of the regional administration,  while everyone else, every other organization and political party, support it – they (Crimean government) will proceed with it in any case. I cant stop the referendum on my own. 

Yes, I consider it illegal, because it is against the Constitution of Ukraine and Ukrainian law on referendum. The Constitution does not allow for regional referendums  decide on territorial status or changing the borders. This is from the legal point of view.

There is also a moral point of view. Decision about the referendum was decided by the Verhovna Rada (parliament of Crimea,) it’s questionable if there was a quorum, also the session itself was held under the threat of armed men. No matter how hard they are trying to convince that this have never happened, that there are no “green army men” ,- the truth is – they have been there, we saw them with our own eyes, and they didn’t deny they were Russian soldiers. At the same time, their commanders are denying it. 

At first, they wanted to hold this session on 26th of February, but we didn’t allow that, we held a big protest. I should admit though, it was on the brink of failure.

Crimean Tatars called out to all pro-Ukrainian forces and people to gather, not to let the Crimean Parliament meet, but “Russian unity” also had a protest at the same location. Crimean Tatars were pushed out, there were fights, and probably some people were injured.

That day, the parliament didn’t hold a session, but the night of 27th, the both buildings of the Parliament and the Council of Ministers were occupied by armed men – back then they were called simply “armed men.” These men took the deputies of the Crimean parliament in, seized their cell phones and showed them to the voting floor. 


“Green Armed Men” on the balcony of the Parliament of Crimea, Simferopol, February 27. Photo by Svetlana Gavrylenko

As of right now the referendum ballot asks two questions, but essentially they do not differ. 

There is no difference, because if we remember the Constitution of 1992, Crimea has a status of a “republic”, it was acting by signing agreements with Ukraine. Now, if we return that Constitution, current government of Crimea will sign such agreements with Russia, not Ukraine. People are simply being lied to, when they are told that there is an “alternative.”

(He is refers to the way that questions are formulated in the ballot: 1. Are you in favor of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea reuniting with Russia as a constituent part of the Russian Federation? Or 2. Are you in favor of restoring the Constitution of the Republic of Crimea of 1992 and of Crimea’s status as part of Ukraine?)

Is there a way out?

The way out is to boycott, turn to the government of Ukraine, ask them to take adequate measures and to turn to the international community, leaders of the prominent countries, leaders of the EU, UN, asking them to react to the things that are going on here. 

Ukraine, as a country, has to classify foreign armed forces, which we all currently witness in Crimea, as terrorists in case they are not Russian army, and in case they are Russian army, they should be classified as occupants. There is no third choice here.

Do you think the boycott can attract the masses? It was announced only by you and the head of Belogorsk. Do you have any other support?

In my opinion, the break down looks something like this: Crimean Tatars are 99.9% support the boycott. As for the rest of the population, in my opinion, about half of them will not participate in the referendum, and the other half will be obediently voting in favor of joining Russia.

Looking at it from the standpoint of the organizers of referendum, it would take place in any case, regardless of who opposes it and in what way. In the paper they issued to regulate referendum, there is no stipulation of how many people have to participate to call it happened.

Even in case if only one person shows up – hence the referendum is declared as it was held.


Ilmi Umerov. Photo

Have you, as the head of the city administration, receive any threats? Have anyone tried to demote you?

– No. At least, not during the period of Maidan and, later, when events moved further South and East. I think they don’t see a point of it. 

I’ve been here for nine years. In that time our economic stats went up, although in situations like this, it counts for nothing. All that counts is “with us” or “against us.”

Well, and you, by today’s standards, are “against them.”

Yes. For some people in administration, I am. Three years ago, Yanukovych fired me the same way as he fired every head of the regional administration throughout Ukraine. I was the only one who was reappointed back after 21 days of my dismissal, responding to the public pressure of the community.

Yanukovych personally interviewed me right here, in Bakhchysarai. That was the first time when Yanukovych conducted personal interview with someone as low as my position.

Did he realize that you had popular public support? … And do you know anything about “self-defense” squads of Crimean Tatars in Bakhchysarai?

Of course, i do.

How are they organized, what are their plans?

To tell you the truth, they don’t have any serious formations. They are organized in small groups, we call them crews.  Five people get in the car and patrol the neighborhood. In my tiny neighborhood listed as many as 36 of such groups

In fact, there’ are more people joining every day. The crews divide the city districts accordingly, and patrol the assigned territory at night.

They don’t attack or defend. They carry no weapons. They just observe. If anything happens, they must report to the head of local Majlis, who, in turn, reports to the regional head and, after all, they decide on the measure to respond.

The conversations got interrupted again: Umerov gets a call from Simferopol, the one that says that the Crimean parliament decided to take over all regional administrations.

Another illegal decision – he says.

And what would you do now?

Not obey. – He smiles.

And what if Russian “self-defense” gets you?

( Sighs ) The scariest or the most dangerous fact is that right after the actions these people take as members of “self-defense” squads, the same people might also act as provocateurs. And if we react back to their deeds, the Russian army will justify its actions as the response to the threats toward Crimean Russians.

And what do we do now?

You know, a schizophrenic is in power…

And do you mean someone specifically? There are a lot of those, who would fit this description, in my opinion

Aksenov. It’s clear that the police won’t help; they are demoralized and are collaborating with the “self defense” forces. What should we do? I don’t know, I have never thought about it.

I expected this to happen one day, but I thought they would put their own men in charge of regional administrations. But they, on the contrary, first got reassured [obedience of the current heads of the regional administrations] and now, much later, they would replace them. Well, we’ll see…


In your opinion, will the Crimean Tatars remain nonviolent further on?

I’m positive about it. Because we stand by this (nonviolent) position. Never have we instigated any conflict, although [I admit that] there were several conflicts [happening] here [in Crimea].

All that said, Bakhchysarai feels very calm at the moment.

And it has to pay  its own price – Umerov sighs again – it takes a lot [of nerves] to talk to everyone individually, assuring all of them that they are right, and at the same time explaining them that there are some good people who think differently, and we have to respect their opinion as well.

After this meeting, we were informed that Vladimir Putin has personally invited Mustafa Cemil to Kremlin. Mustafa is a former leader of the Crimea Tatar Mejlis, currently he serves as a deputy of Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine.

As for the current leader of Crimean Tatars’  Majlis, Refat Chubarov, he stated that, despite Crimean parliament offering to provide some benefit package for Tatars, Tatars ignore this offer and do not recognize this referendum as legitimate…


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