Guns, gangsters and girls – a referendum night Crimean style
The eve of today’s referendum in Crimea was more eventful than I had expected.
By the time I reached the lobby around 6.30pm armed, uniformed and mostly masked men were already sweeping through the upper floors of the Hotel Moscow.
I had come down in the lift from the 7th floor with no problem, but our producer, Julie O’Connor, was shoved back into her room on the 4th, pistol to her neck, by a man in black.
There she stayed for an hour and a half listening to the sound of keys turning in locks and on two occasions a woman screaming.
Every morning this week I have noticed large men with shaved heads in leather jackets escorted by bodyguards in the Hotel Moscow lobby.
On Friday night a guard with a curly earpieces was outside the lift on my floor.
Last Saturday night stick-thin women in six-inch stilettos, wearing fur coats over hot pants, accompanied the men into the restaurant which had been turned into disco with light show, pulsating music and dancing dalmatians.
We journalists covering Crimea’s rapidly organised referendum on rejoining Russia have invaded a hotel normally reserved for gangsters and their molls.
A report in the Kyiv Times says that Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, nicknamed “Goblin” because of his alleged links to organised crime, is or was connected to a mobster called Serhiy Voronkov who hangs out at the Hotel Moscow.
Aksyonov, the leader of the Russia Unity party which gained only four per cent of the vote in the last election, came to power in late February.
He was voted in by Crimean deputies a few hours after the parliament was stormed by Russian soldiers, and is spearheading today’s referendum.
What did the armed men want? A hefty man in a black leather jacket appeared and held an impromptu press conference in the hotel porch.
“This is an anti-terrorist training exercise,” he said. “It’s all planned.” The hotel receptionists trying to calm the situation down giggled and then looked uneasy.
So two out the 30 plus gunmen appear to have left – and threatened a cameraman on the way out… pic.twitter.com/BLaq6p62p2
— Stuart Webb (@Worldwidewebb1) March 15, 2014
Journalists swarmed in the lobby. Occasionally a couple of armed men ran down the stairs and through reception.
“We’ve already smashed one camera. Do you want us to smash another?” snarled one in Russian as he punched a cameraman who got too close.
Less than two minutes later, a waiter, smart in black and white, pushed a room service trolley into the lift.
A short middle aged man in a beige jacket who said he was the minister of defence appeared. “Nothing is happening!” he cried.
We shouted questions. “It’s a false alarm! There was information about a criminal but it’s not true!” he responded. More gunmen ran down the stairs, through the lobby and out of the front door.
Eventually the excitement died down. Guests who had been trapped in their rooms, including Julie, were able to join us in the lobby. A few gunmen remained on the 4th floor.
Three referendum observers from a far right Flemish separatist party, whom we had interviewed earlier in the day, appeared at the bar.
At 4pm they had been drinking beer in a cafe near parliament and had invited us to share a bottle of Cillier de Dauphin semi-sweet Chardonnay. We had declined.
3 armed men just left as journalists filmed. Said ‘We’ve broken one camera, do you want us to break more?’
— Lindsey Hilsum (@lindseyhilsum) March 15, 2014
They seemed unaware of the drama of the previous few hours.
“Are you ready for tomorrow?” I asked their leader, Frank Creyelman.
He swayed. “Are you OK?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “I’m drunk.”
This, I thought, is a referendum like no other.
Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter.