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Pro-Russian Activist Falls On Hard Times In Annexed Crimea

Russia took over Crimea after sending troops to secure key facilities and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by 100 countries in a UN vote. (file photo)

SIMFEROPOL -- Valery Podyachy's most cherished wish came true in March 2014, when his native Crimea was annexed by Russia.

Once a prominent pro-Russian activist, Podyachy, 48, had tirelessly lobbied for the peninsula to break away from Ukraine and return to Russia's fold.

Life under Russian rule, however, has not been kind to him.

Instead of earning him accolades, his past activism has cost him his university teaching job and his only source of income.

Before the annexation, Podyachy headed a pro-Russian group called the Popular Front that pushed for Kyiv to lease the entire peninsula to Russia in exchange for the cancellation of Ukraine's debts to Moscow.

While the group stopped short of calling for full secession from Ukraine, Podyachy was found guilty of "encroaching on Ukraine's territorial integrity and inviolability" in February 2011.

A Crimean court handed him a three-year suspended sentence, including one year on probation.

When the Academy of Life and Environment Sciences where he taught applied mathematics at the Crimean Federal University in Simferopol announced last November that lecturers needed to reapply to their teaching posts, Podyachy found himself automatically disqualified due to his criminal record.

Under Russian law, all decisions delivered by Ukrainian courts in Crimea up to its annexation remain valid.

Podyachy was forced to leave the university and is now unemployed.

Contacted by RFE/RL, he declined to discuss the incident.

"I've already said everything I needed to say," he said.

Asking whether he intended to appeal his effective sacking, he said he was a "law-abiding citizen" and would not challenge the decision.

"I will wait to be rehabilitated," he added.

Podyachy's misfortunes have sparked dismay among his comrades-in-arms from the Popular Front.

To them, his treatment is highly hypocritical, given the pride Russian officials from President Vladimir Putin on down have displayed about the annexation of Crimea, which poisoned ties with the West and led to U.S. and EU sanctions against Moscow.

Russia took over Crimea after sending troops to secure key facilities and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by 100 countries in a UN vote. Putin has called the peninsula, which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, a “sacred” Russian land.

"Instead of being shown gratitude, this person, who devoted half his life to what took place in Crimea, is now being branded a criminal," Vadim Mordashov, a lawyer and former lawmaker and Popular Front member, told RFE/RL.

Mordashov said members of the group have petitioned various authorities, including the State Council -- Crimea's new self-proclaimed parliament -- to clear Podyachy.

"We received outrageous answers," he said. "For example, the State Council responded to our collective request by suggesting that Valery Podyachy compensate the damage caused by his crime."

Mordashov believes Podyachy has become a thorn in the side of current officials who had pledged allegiance to Ukraine before switching to the Russian side following the annexation.

"The Crimean leadership is not interested in rehabilitating Podyachy," he says. "They don't need him; he is in their way."

According to Mordashov, parliament speaker Vladimir Konstantinov in particular may have cause to resent Podyachy's longtime loyalty to Russia.

Konstantinov had strongly condemned Podyachy's calls for a Russian takeover of the peninsula back in 2012, when he already served as parliament speaker.

In a statement posted on the site of the now-defunct Ukrainian parliament in Crimea, Konstantinov had branded Popular Front members "marginals who don't represent anyone in the republic" and pledged that "the absurd demands of these political midgets will receive the treatment they deserve in court."

Written by Claire Bigg based on reporting by Aleksandra Dobrokhotova