SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE – Waving the Russian flag and chanting “Russia! Russia!” protesters in Crimea have become the last major bastion of resistance to Ukraine’s new rulers.
President Viktor Yanukovych’s overthrow Saturday has been accepted across the vast country, even in his power base in the Russian-speaking regions of the east. But Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula attached to the rest of Ukraine by just a narrow strip of land, is alone so far in challenging the new order.
As the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian majority, and a home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the strategically important territory is now also the focus of a battle between Russia and the West over the future of Ukraine.
Tensions are mounting in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, as separatists try to exploit the chaos after the changes in Kiev to press demands for Russia to reclaim the territory that communist leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted in 1954 to the Soviet republic of Ukraine.
On Thursday, 50 gunmen seized the regional parliament building in Simferopol. About 100 police gathered in front of the building, and a similar number of people carrying Russian flags marched up chanting “Russia, Russia” and calling for a Crimean referendum.
One of the demonstrators, Alexei, 30, said: “We have our own constitution. Crimea is autonomous. The government in Kiev are fascists, and what they’re doing is illegal.”
Washington has warned Moscow not to send in tanks, an action that could result in yet another war in a region that has been fought over — and changed hands — many times in history. But President Vladimir Putin has flexed his muscles in the past couple of days, putting military forces in western Russia on alert and saying his government is acting to ensure the security of its facilities in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
The view from separatists in Crimea is that there has never been a better time to appeal to Moscow for help than now.
“I crossed two oceans and four seas with the Russian Navy, and now I have fascists telling me what to do?” asked Daniyel Romanenko, a 73-year-old retired officer, portraying the new Ukrainian leadership in the worst possible terms in a country that was overrun by Nazi Germany in World War II.
“We should be given the choice to unite at last with Russia,” he said while attending a rally in Sevastopol.
Crimea’s balmy climate once made it a favored holiday destination for Russian czars and Soviet leaders. Vineyards, orchards and the “green riviera” along its southern coast make for some stunning scenery.
But even before the national parliament in Kiev stripped Yanukovych of his powers Saturday, after three months of protests by largely pro-European Union demonstrators, there were rallies in Crimea by worried ethnic Russians. Although he was little loved in Moscow, Russian leaders backed Yanukovych and his departure reduces their ability to influence Ukraine.
For the more than 1 million ethnic Russians in Crimea, it increases uncertainty, and many want protection by Mother Russia, with whom cultural and religious ties are strong.
“We don’t have a legitimate government, so we have to look out for ourselves,” said Vladimir, 37, a businessman.
Taking matters into their own hands, separatist-minded protesters at a rally Sunday voted in a show of hands to appoint Alexei Chaly, a Russian businessman, as the de facto mayor of Sevastopol. The next day, the presence of a large crowd on the streets outside a meeting of the city administration ensured his appointment could not be blocked.
The chaotic events, followed by more protests and more calls for secession, underline how difficult the transition of power may be in Ukraine, especially in Crimea.
Rumors that protesters from Kiev’s barricades might be on their way from the capital to put down separatist moves have prompted some in the region to create informal self-defense units. Around 3,000 men have signed up in Sevastopol alone, with military veterans and former members of the Berkut riot police training the younger recruits, the organizers say.
In other parts of Ukraine, and particularly in the capital, Kiev, the Berkut is despised as the force that opened fire on protesters during the protests.
“We need to protect ourselves from the armed criminals coming to Crimea in masks to cause unrest. They’ve turned Ukraine into a banana republic,” said Gennady Basov, the leader of the Russian Bloc party that represents ethnic Russians.
Unification with Russia is not the party’s main aim, but it believes that splitting Ukraine down the middle — between Russian-speaking areas in the east and regions where Ukrainian is predominant in the west — makes economic and cultural sense.
“Most of the economic strength of Ukraine is in the east — that’s where people actually work. In the west they just go to Kiev to protest,” Basov said, underlining ethnic Russians’ contempt for the protesters in Kiev, many of whom were from the west of the country.
Such remarks show how the protests in Kiev, triggered by Yanukovych’s decision in November to spurn trade and political deals with the EU and rebuild ties with Ukraine’s former Soviet overlord, have widened divisions.
For some ethnic Russians in Crimea, it was the last straw. Already connected to southern Ukraine by land that is only 5 km wide at some points, the region seems to them to have less in common with the rest of the country than ever.
“The people don’t understand this was a revolution against a criminal government, they think it’s all Western influence. To them, the people on the barricades are now greater enemies than the corrupt government they overthrew,” said Leonid Pylunskyy, a regional deputy for the conservative Kurultai Rukh party.
He is the fourth generation of his family to call Crimea home, but both his children participated in the Kiev protests — his son on the barricades, his daughter providing demonstrators with hot tea and sandwiches.
Meanwhile, barely an hour goes by without a new rumor of troops massing or protesters on their way from Kiev to “restore order.”
Putin himself stirred the pot by suddenly announcing the Russian military drill. He may be saber-rattling but he also is unpredictable and brooding after appearing to lose a geopolitical tussle with the West over Ukraine that has brought back memories of the Cold War.
Opinion polls suggest a majority of Russians still view Crimea, annexed by Russia in 1783, as a Russian territory. But not all the peninsula’s residents are pro-Russia or against the new political situation.
The region is a patchwork of ethnic groups and the Tatars, now back in numbers after their ancestors were deported to Central Asia or Russia’s Urals region by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, dread the idea of integration with Russia.
“In 1783 we fell under the power of the Russian empire and that’s when all our sorrows began. The (Crimean ethnic) Russians can look to Putin. We’re sticking with Ukraine,” Crimean Tatar leader Refat Chubarov said in an interview.
Chubarov outlined what he saw as deliberate moves by ethnic Russians to fuel tension.
“This is their plan: They’ve stoked the fires in Sevastopol, now they want to light the fires in Simferopol so all Crimea burns,” he said. “I hope I’m wrong, but Russia could well decide to deploy its forces in Crimea.”
Ethnic Tatars and ethnic Russians faced off outside the regional parliament Wednesday but dispersed after scuffles.
Conflict is hardly unusual for the people of Crimea. It was inhabited or invaded by Scythians, Greeks, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Kazhars, Kipchaks, Turks and Mongols, and was part of the Roman and Byzantine empires before it fell into Russian hands.
There were fierce battles over Crimea during the war, when it was occupied by the Nazis, and during the 1853-56 Crimean War, which Russia lost to an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia.
“We’re used to being fought over. We’ve had the Turks, British, Germans, and now this,” Igor, a 26-year-old businessman from Simferopol, noted.