Crimea’s Russians welcome Moscow’s troops as protectors

Crimeans expected to vote for move away from Kiev in referendum

Viktor and Yelena Vesna at a pro-Russian protest in Simferopol, Crimea. Their placard says: “The Maidan – is like Egypt!” Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Viktor and Yelena Vesna at a pro-Russian protest in Simferopol, Crimea. Their placard says: “The Maidan – is like Egypt!” Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

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For Lyubov Moskvichova-Bogdan, Russian troops couldn’t arrive soon enough in Crimea.

“We’ve been waiting for Russia to help us. Now we feel safe,” she said, as pro-Kremlin protesters gathered yesterday outside parliament in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital.

“We are Russians and we will always be Russians. We have nothing in common with the people in western Ukraine or those now running the country,” said the 61-year-old.

“They are trying to make me speak Ukrainian – why should I learn it now?”

Like many ethnic Russians in Crimea, who comprise some 60 per cent of its two million population, Moskvichova-Bogdan believes Ukraine’s new government will downgrade the status of the Russian language as part of a broad drive to take the country towards the West and away from Moscow.

Opposition to revolutionaries

Nowhere in Ukraine are ties with Russia – and opposition to the revolutionaries who ousted President Viktor Yanukovich – stronger than in Crimea.

Russians here are deeply proud of a history they trace back to their distant Slavic ancestors, the people of Rus, whose Prince Vladimir was baptised into Christianity on Crimea’s Black Sea coast in 988.

Some 800 years later, Empress Catherine the Great brought Crimea back under Russian control after centuries of Tatar and Ottoman rule, and oversaw the creation of the Black Sea naval fleet that is still based at Sevastopol.

It is a Russian base on Ukrainian soil, and this weekend many people here proudly flew its flag alongside the red-white-and-blue banners of Crimea and of Russia, as they cheered the deployment around the peninsula of truckloads of Moscow’s troops.

“Yanukovich was not good for anyone,” said Elena Vesna, who with husband Viktor joined a few hundred people for the pro-Russian rally in Simferopol.

Referendum on status

“But why couldn’t the people in Kiev wait for elections next year to vote him out, in a civilised way? Why throw rocks and petrol bombs at the police? I’ll tell you why – because the European Union and United States who are paying them wanted results right now,” she said.

Ms Vesna was holding a placard denouncing events in Kiev and supporting Crimean plans for a referendum on its status later this year.

Local deputies last week voted to hold the referendum on May 26th, the day Ukraine plans to elect a new president, but now they plan to bring it forward to March 30th. Crimeans are expected to vote for greater autonomy; Kiev says the referendum is illegal. “Who cares what they say?” said Ms Vesna.

“If they can break all laws, throw out a president and put in their own people with violence, why shouldn’t we have a referendum on how we want to live?”

As Russian troops, armoured vehicles, aircraft and ships patrolled Crimea, Ukraine’s new leaders appealed for US and European help. But Crimea’s Russians welcomed them with open arms.

“We can be friends with Europe, America and Nato, ” said Ms Vesna. “But Russians are our brothers. And brothers look after each other.”

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