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