Tensions are running high in Simferopol, the capital of the region of Crimea. A Polish reporter tries to take the pulse of a people increasingly divided.
SIMFEROPOL — They don’t say a word.
Two military trucks with armed and unmarked solders in balaclavas are standing a few hundred meters from the Ukrainian military base on Carol Marks Street in Simferopol, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.
When asked where they came from, the soldiers gesture in a way to make clear that they are banned from speaking.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that these are voluntary troops working in the name of Crimean self-defense. But people in Simferopol say they know better: “Russian army,” several say matter-of-factly.
For the past few days, the military base on Carol Marks Street has been a flashpoint in the geopolitical showdown between Russia and the West and the new pro-European government in Kiev. An unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers has barricaded themselves inside, unwilling to give up the building to the unidentified newcomers.
Nearby, the Russian flag is waving on the top of the headquarters of the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.
"We all feel very patriotic inside and we are not afraid,” says Colonel Igor Wladymirowicz Mamczur, one of the Ukrainian soldiers locked in the military building. "We do not want bloodshed and we will not let ourselves be provoked. That said, we are not going to leave the base unless we get such an order.”
Every day, Tatar women gather near the base with banners saying “No Putin.” But they are not the only ones to demonstrate. With Russian flags in their hands and ribbons of Saint George, a symbol of Russian army, pinned in their military-like uniforms, those who claim accession to Russia are present too.
“We want peace, but if the Russians were not here, the new government in Kiev would slap us around,” says one.
A man in an Armani Jeans hat says he “agreed with 30% of what was said in Maidan Square. I would also chant: ‘No to oligarchy and corruption.’ Yet, I cannot agree with the other 70% because I am against fascists." The man says he is opposed to Stepan Bandera, a controversial leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, and is worried about the arrival of "gays and drug addicts” in Crimea.
“If they could stand three months in winter in that square, it was only thanks to drugs!," adds the man, growing visibly angry. "Now they are in hospitals, claiming to be hurt but in reality they are in rehab.”
Later, when I ask about the future of Crimea he says that the referendum proposed by local authorities will be decisive, and that Russians will ensure that it is held in peace and tranquility. “We protect Europe from fascism!” he declares. "You will thank us one day.”
What still unites
Witalij, 62, does not support deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych either. After the last reform of pension system, Witalij gets a little bit more than 800 Hryvnias ($87) per month. “How should I survive with that?” he asks.
He refers to the members of the Party of Regions, the political formation of Yanukovych, as "thieves." But at the same time, he does not accept the new Ukrainian government. “Those who are ruling now in Kiev are fascists,” he says. “My grandfather went with the Red Army from Moscow to Berlin and they want me now to worship Bandera?!”
I am then approached by another man, who heard I was Polish. "Tell me something, you Poles!: I fought in Chechnya, on the Russian side obviously. Back then, Europe called us bandits, invaders. Have a look now at Chechnya - It turned it into a pearl of Caucasus!”
Suddenly, the man changes the subject: “Tell me, what do you think about gays?” he asks me suspiciously. “You in Poland, you got all messed up.” He points out a small group of people near the entrance to the military base and adds: “Gays and fascists –that is who they will bring us here!”
The group of five people are using their bodies to block the entrance to the Ukrainian military base: a young girl, a male student, two elderly women and one former soldier with a ribbon in Ukrainian colors pinned to his jacket.
“Why am I, a Ukrainian, living in the Ukrainian Crimea? Why am I not afraid to walk round with the Ukrainian flag?” the former soldier says, shaking his head. “I do not want war, but we cannot give up like that to the Russians.”
Already, longstanding relationships are starting to change, says the soldier. “A good friend of mine came here today. We studied together, we drank vodka together. And today, he says that I have shit instead of a brain.”
“Because you do!," somebody from the pro-Russian protesters shouts to him.
“Tell me,” the former soldier responds, “when Ukraine was playing against France (in soccer) were you not chanting: ‘Ukraine’?”
The other acknowledges that he was indeed.
“Thanks God,” sighs the ex-soldier. “There’s still something that unifies us.”