Tug of war for Crimea
The region – 60 per cent Russian – is Russia’s bulwark against what it sees as the West’s bid to control ancient Slavic lands
Police separate ethnic Russians and Crimean Tatars in Simferopol this week. Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters
Ukraine is determined to cling on to Crimea, which dangles like a pendant from its Black Sea coast, but in some ways the peninsula already feels like another country.
As Ukraine’s “revolutionaries” celebrate victory under its national flag and vow to make it a modern European state, the Russian banner is flying over official buildings in Crimea.
Many Ukrainian towns and cities recently toppled their Soviet-era statues of Vladimir Lenin as symbols of Kremlin domination, but only one was felled in Crimea, to widespread condemnation. Now a local newspaper is regaling readers with “Five Crimean reasons to be grateful” to the communist leader.
And while riot police from western Ukraine have gone down on their knees to beg protesters to forgive their unit’s brutality, in Crimea they were welcomed home as heroes. Thirty-five officers who fled Kiev with their weapons are believed to have found refuge here.
During a three-month uprising against President Viktor Yanukovich, even eastern areas of Ukraine governed by his allies saw sizeable protests against his corrupt and increasingly bloody rule.
But Crimea looked on, a land apart. Protests here were small and quickly quashed by an ethnic-Russian majority that shares Moscow’s view that Yanukovich was ousted by Russian-hating extremists funded and organised by the European Union and United States.
Now this region is Russia’s bastion against what it sees as a western bid to take control of ancient Slavic lands, and to swallow up the Kremlin’s vital buffer against Nato and EU expansion.
On Thursday pro-Russian gunmen seized the parliament in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, and later “invited” deputies inside for a session at which they condemned Ukraine’s revolution, declared support for Yanukovich and called a referendum on broadening Crimea’s autonomy.
Amid sightings of Russian armoured personnel carriers near Simferopol, and the appearance of other groups of gunmen at Crimea’s airports, the region’s new premier, Sergei Aksyonov, has said: “I am sure, in these difficult times, Russia will extend a helping hand to us.”
On the streets of Simferopol and other towns, and at roadblocks manned by civilians that are now appearing around Crimea, local Russians have turned their backs on Kiev and pin their hopes for the future on Russia.
“I’m not defending Yanukovich. He was a terrible leader. But we can’t trust the gang that has replaced him,” says Kolya, a 20-year-old on the square outside Simferopol’s parliament. “They are fulfilling orders from their masters in Europe and America to take Ukraine away from Russia. That cannot happen. Crimea is, was and will be with Russia.”
As Kolya talks, a small group forms around him in support. Olga, a teacher, traces Crimea’s history back through the fierce battles of the second World War, when the port of Sevastopol became a Soviet “hero city”; through the Crimean War of the 1850s, to Catherine the Great’s annexation of the peninsula for Russia in 1783.
“And it was at Chersonesos that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptised in 988. This was the moment the ancient Russians became Christians,” Olga says.
Listening to these Russians vowing to defend lands to which they lay a historical and even spiritual claim is occasionally reminiscent of the way Serbs describe Kosovo as the cradle of their civilisation.
Serbs are now a small minority in Kosovo, however, while in Crimea Russians are a 60 per cent majority, and Moscow’s presence has remained strong here through almost 23 years of Ukrainian independence.
Chersonesos is now a suburb of Sevastopol, where thousands of Russian naval officers and support staff serve at the main base of Moscow’s Black Sea fleet. One of Yanukovich’s first major moves on becoming president, in 2010, was to extend Russia’s lease on the site until 2042.
Sevastopol hastily appointed a Russian businessman as its new mayor this week, and he has since been visited by a stream of high-profile deputies from Russia’s parliament. All have reassured locals that Moscow will not abandon them, and they have discussed ways to make it easier for people in Crimea to obtain Russian passports.
President Vladimir Putin is also a regular visitor to Crimea. He has ridden with the Night Wolves biker gang that vows to defend Slavic traditions and Russian Orthodox values, and last summer he and Yanukovich attended the consecration ceremony for a new bell at St Vladimir’s Cathedral in Chersonesos.
On the same trip Putin addressed a conference in Kiev called Orthodox-Slavic Values: The Foundation of Ukraine’s Civilisational Choice . He told delegates there that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians shared “spiritual values that make us a single people” and a long history that is “the foundation upon which we can build new integration ties”.
That set the tone for a tug of war between Russia and the EU over Ukraine’s future alignment, and in November Yanukovich sided with Moscow when he abruptly scrapped plans to sign a major trade and political agreement with the EU in favour of strengthening ties with Russia. The student protests triggered by that decision spiralled into the revolution that toppled him a week ago.
Putin appeared to have won a major geopolitical victory over the West when Yanukovich turned back to Russia, but now he is left to salvage something from what Ukraine’s new leaders insist will be an irrevocable shift towards the West.
A new generation of pro-EU leaders in Georgia made similar declarations after their 2003 Rose Revolution. Five years later Putin deployed troops to “protect Russian citizens” in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Moscow now uses as military bases and sees as independent states.
Scrambling to cement power and fend off bankruptcy, Kiev has vowed to retain control of Crimea and block any Russian intervention, and the revolutionaries insist that Russian-speakers have nothing to fear, despite the prominent role of ultranationalists in their ranks.
The Maidan movement has relatively few supporters in Crimea, but those it does have are among the most passionate in the entire country. Most are Crimean Tatars, Muslims who make up about 12 per cent of the peninsula’s population. They sent groups to the main protest camp on Kiev’s Independence Square – the original Maidan – and vow to play their part in leading Ukraine away from Russia and towards the West.
Josef Stalin deported the entire 200,000-strong Crimean Tatar population to Siberia and Soviet central Asia in 1944, and they are resolute that their native land will not fall back under Moscow’s control.
“The Russians want to take us back to Russia and they are pushing for a referendum because they are a majority,” said Server Ishankulov, a 65-year-old who was born in exile in Uzbekistan and returned to Crimea in the early 1990s. “We cannot accept that. This is our homeland, and we will protect it.”
Many Russians here also cast themselves in the role of territorial defenders, and accuse the Tatars of stealing land when they returned from exile.
It is a volatile mix: competing historical grievances, claims of a God-given right to the soil, rising racism and religious intolerance, a state in flux and apparently unable to restore order, and an aggressive neighbour led by a president who sees himself as a restorer of his nation’s might.
“They are celebrating in Kiev,” says Anton, a Russian taxi driver in Simferopol. “But this isn’t the end. It’s only the beginning.”