I had a nice chat with my parents and grandparents over Skype just yesterday, as they gathered at my great aunt's house for a family dinner. Life in Crimea goes on, despite seemingly tense situation and somewhat speculative media reports. Understandably, they are worried about the situation, but they choose to focus on what they have and can do today, like visiting each other and spending time with the elders.
My great grandparents (on the father's side) died off the hands of Bolsheviks during dekulakization (in exile in Siberia). All of my grandparents and their siblings (aside from those who have been in missing in action during WWII) went through through Stalin's deportation in 1944. My grandmother (mother's side) was only 5, when on May 18, only a week after my grand-grandfather returned home from 'The Great Patriotic War' after loosing his hand, armed men escorted them out of their house and led them to what they thought would be their end (the stories of the Holocaust were just becoming a public knowledge). They have spent days in cargo train cars without food and water, with elders dying, mothers giving birth, children crying - all under the watchful eye of the armed Red Army soldiers. I can't start to imagine what might be going through their heads now, when they see Russian soldiers deployed a few blocks away from where their children and grandchildren work and study.
Crimea is a very complex region, one that was 'ignored' for decades. Ukrainian government has done little to address peninsula's problem, also partly because of its autonomous status. Until today, for example, there is no law rehabilitating Crimean Tatar people from wrong accusations made in 1944. Given the government failed to provide clear restitution and resettlement policies - the whole process is very chaotic - with many unhappy people both among Crimean Tatar and ethnically Russian locals.
The Orange revolution left the Crimean population with a bitter sense of injustice, because the majority support was for Yanukovych and his promise for closer ties with Russia. Given Russia's strategic interest in Crimea, Kremlin seems to have invested great deal in forming public opinion in Crimea - over the years we have seen many anti-NATO demonstrations, constant clashes between Kremlin-endorsed nationalistic groups (such as Russian Unity, of which Aksenov is a member) and Crimean Tatars. Several members of the Russian Duma are frequent visitors to Crimea, Ukraine's foreign ministry has issued a number of notes to their Russian counterparts over the chauvinist, sometimes separatist, speeches officials from Russia have delivered in Crimea.
In spite of the strong pro-Russian sentiment, I doubt that the majority of Crimeans are in favor of any changes to the status of the peninsula, hence perhaps the Crimea's Supreme Council is holding its meeting behind closed doors, with no media and questionable quorum. Per se, I am not against the referendum, but the text of the recent decision is rather amusing: out of two questions posed for referendum, one seeks to turn Crimea into a subject of the Russian Federation, the second seeks to reinstate Crimean constitution of 1992, which provided Crimea with broad autonomy within Ukrainian borders. Apparently, Crimeans have no right to keep everything as is, or even choose to strip Crimea of its autonomy and become a normal oblast within Ukraine. To remind the reader, Russia has already tried the scenario with broad Crimean autonomy, when in 1994 Crimea's first and only elected president Yuriy Meshkov has made various dodgy deals with Russia, attempted to introduce Russian currency, Russian passports, and even managed to switch Crimea to the same time zone as Moscow.
I have long ago decided that I have no future in Ukraine, but my heart is with people of Ukraine and Crimea. I can't be indifferent to what's happening, but unlike most I believe that the current situation in Crimea is the failure of all parties concerned - Ukraine's failure to recognize the special needs of the region and the underground processes that undermined Ukraine's territorial integrity, Russia's failure to employ available international mechanisms to ensure that ethnic Russians and Russian citizens receive treatment they deserve (as oppose to patronizing unconstitutional and questionable movements), and the failure of the West to recognize the scope and skill of Russian government propaganda and the conceptual war it has been leading against the Western values for years.
I do hope that the diplomatic efforts resolve this situation, but there is a lot of work to be done after. There is a great sense of entitlement that Russian feel to Crimea (for historical reasons), and this conflict has invoked too much patriotism (borderline nationalism and fascism) on both sides. It will take years for this to heal. Russia's military base in Crimea was a tribute to the past, now it has become a threat to the future - we have yet to see more drama.