Kiev In Reverse: On The Ground In Crimea, Ukraine's Newest Battlefield

In the capital of Ukraine's Crimea region, where ethnic Russians and otherwise pro-Russian citizens hold sway, dissenters are holding a countermovement to the pro-EU Maiden protests.

Dueling pro and anti-Russian rallies in Simferopol
Dueling pro and anti-Russian rallies in Simferopol
Ilya Barabanov

SIMFEROPOL — On the road from Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s Crimea region, to Sevastopol, a single police officer was patroling, accompanied by about 10 volunteers from local self-defense forces.

“We’re waiting for the fascists to come here from Kiev and impose themselves,” one of them says, referring to the pro-EU protesters who toppled the government in Kiev. “We are ready to defend our police officers.”

“We are also prepared to not allow officials that have been appointed by the illegitimate government in Kiev,” another interrupts.

Here in the heart of Crimea, which Russia ceded to Ukraine in 1954, many residents are ethnic Russians. Many others identify much more closely with their Russian neighbor than with the pro-EU protesters who kept a three-month vigil on Kiev’s Independence Square and their democratic aspirations, which proved victorious last week when President Viktor Yanukovych’s oligarchy came to an abrupt end.

The Sevastopol city administration has been assembling people since 8 a.m. They were waiting for the emergency Crimean Council meeting in Simferopol and discussing the latest news: that interim Ukraine Interior Minister Arsen Avakov had ordered the disbanding of the special “Berkut” anti-terrorism police units that had tried to suppress protesters in Maidan Square.

Pro-Russian Sevastopol Mayor Aleksei Chali, who was elected Feb. 23, showed up to his new job and announced that the Sevastopol Berkut unit had returned from Kiev, but that he was not going to dissolve it.

“We have the money for their salaries,” he said, to sweeping applause.

The mayor returned inside, surrounded by self-defense activists, and a demonstration began in Sevastopol’s Nahkimov Square. “We aren’t Yankees, we are Slavs. Russians are our brothers,” people chanted.

“We’re like the famous ‘Varyag’ warship that went out to sea for a last battle!” one old man shouted.

“No, the Varyag sank! We are the Aurora, sounding the alarm!” an old woman shot back.

Aleksei Zhuravlev, a deputy in the Russian Parliament, came to the square, and protesters seemed to assume he was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s security assistant.

“Not a single European country has invested as much in Ukraine’s development as Russia has,” Zhuravlev said. “The Russian people are prepared to help the Crimeans and the people from Sevastopol to fight against these fascist thugs.”

Of course, when he was asked to clarify exactly how Russia was prepared to help Sevastopol, the deputy said that the Crimeans were capable of defending themselves and that the support from Moscow might be simply humanitarian. Then he grabbed an armful of carnations and went to set them at a memorial for the city’s defenders who died fighting the protesters in Kiev.

The pale blue flags belong to Crimean Tatars, strongly supportive of Euro-Maidan and united Ukraine — Photo: @michaelpetrou via Twitter.

Recruiting “defenders”

At that moment, volunteers were gathering to travel to Simferopol to “defend Crimean interests.”

“The buses are waiting for men!” yelled a man in a Cossack, persuading hesitant onlookers. “Go, protest, and you’ll return a hero by the evening.”

In the end, three buses full of protesters left Nakhimov Square for Simferopol.

Suddenly, there was a rumor that police officers were trying to arrest the Berkut unit’s members, and several dozen people ran off to their defense, only to find that no one was threatening to arrest anyone.

“The head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs met with us, told us about the news from Kiev, but no one really understands what’s going to happen to us,” said the Berkut officer. He explained that eight Berkut fighters from Sevastopol were injured in the Kiev fighting, and most are at home recovering, except one who was shot in the chest and has yet to be transferred home from Kiev.

“Four fighters were just buried in Simferopol,” said a nearby Cossack.

“In other regions, our colleagues have been insulted. This is the only place where people protect us,” said the thankful Berkut officer. People calmed down and started to discuss their future.

“When everything was going down in Kiev, we didn’t really care,” admitted one man. “We don’t trust the ‘orange’ revolutionaries, but we’re also tired of the government. Governments have always skimmed from the top, but under this government kickbacks rose to be 50% of government expenses. Now people are just scared that hooligans are going to come into town and try to set up their own rules.”

“It would be good if Russia took us over, as well as the rest of the Southeast,” one woman started to say. But then Nina Prudnikova, a City Council deputy, interrupted her. “That’s what journalists are expecting you to say, so that they can then say that we are extremists. Leave us alone and people won’t worry. Nobody really wants the country to fall apart.”

But Simferopol was horribly divided this week. In contrast to the demonstrations in Sevastopol, in Simferopol there were also representatives from the Tatar community, who number some 260,000 in Crimea.

Crimean Tatars categorically rejected any discussions about Crimea becoming part of Russia, and they marched under the slogan “Ukrainian Unity.” There were 30,000 members of the Tatar community at the Simferopol protest, and they had come to after hearing rumors that an emergency session of the Regional Council was going to make a decision about Crimea’s future.

Regional Council head Vladimir Konstantinov denied those rumors, but that didn’t assure supporters of Kiev’s new regime. The group co-opted many of the same slogans used by the Maidan protesters, such as “Glory to Ukraine.”

“Russia, Russia!” countered the protesters at the competing, pro-Russian demonstrations.

It wasn’t possible to avoid a confrontation between the two groups. At first they fought with Russian and Ukrainian flags, and then knives came out. By Thursday morning, after gunmen seized the Crimean Parliament in Simferopol and raised the Russian flag, at least two people were dead and 30 others injured.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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