Crimea vows to resist Ukraine’s ‘anti-Russian’ revolution

Russians and Tatars plan rival rallies as local parliament holds special session today

Pro-Russian activists gather to form a local public guard to oppose pro-EU groups in Simferopol in the Crimea yesterday. Photograph: Reuters

“There’s no Maidan here,” said Vitaly, a young waiter in a restaurant in Simferopol, capital of Crimea. “A few people tried it, but it didn’t catch on.”

"Maidan" is the Ukrainian name for both Independence Square in Kiev and the protest movement centred there that toppled President Viktor Yanukovich and his government.

Maidan and other squares across central and western Ukraine have for months been full of people Vitaly's age, who were were sick of the corruption, greed and thuggery that Yanukovich came to embody. Now they are celebrating a revolution that they hope will transform their country.

"It's not like that here," Vitaly explained. "I am against Maidan and in favour of Russia. And most of Crimea thinks like me."


Many people living on this Black Sea peninsula, twice the size of Northern Ireland, agree with Moscow’s assertion that Ukraine’s revolutionaries are violent, western-backed ultra-nationalists who intend to crush the rights of Russian-speakers and curtail Crimea’s links with Russia itself.

This autonomous region and its restive ethnic-Russian majority are a major concern for Ukraine’s new rulers, who fear the Kremlin may intervene to “protect” people here and to ensure continued control over its Black Sea naval fleet based in the port of Sevastopol. Two armoured personnel carriers were parked near the base yesterday.

It is to Crimea that Yanukovich fled when his presidency collapsed, and officials say he was last seen on Sunday night near Balaclava, less than 20km from Sevastopol.

Demand for action
Today, Crimea's parliament in Simferopol plans to hold a special session to discuss Ukraine's crisis, and hundreds of people rallied outside the assembly last night to demand that their leaders take radical action. Waving Russian and Crimean flags, some called for a referendum on independence, others for union with Russia.

As the crowd chanted “Russia, Russia!” and “Crimea – rise up!”, the speaker of the parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, came out to address them.

“I share your alarm and worry over Crimea’s fate . . . We will fight for our autonomous republic to the end,” he said.

“Today Kiev doesn’t want to solve our problems, therefore we must unite and act decisively. The people of Crimea have enough strength. Neo-Nazism will not work in Crimea. We will not betray Crimea.”

Many protesters wore orange-and-black ribbons that are now a symbol of opposition to the Maidan movement. They are inspired by the Russian military’s St George’s Ribbon, which is associated with the Red Army’s victory over the Nazis in the second World War.

“We are Russian and we should join with Russia, our historic home,” said one young protester, Andrei, who was wearing the emblem. “We have never really been part of Ukraine, and the new authorities in Kiev do not represent us. More than that – they are dangerous for us.”

Like many people here, he sees today’s revolutionaries as heirs of guerrillas in western Ukraine who sometimes fought alongside the Nazis in their bid to create an independent state.

Many Crimeans’ fear of the new administration in Kiev was only intensified by a weekend decision by parliament to quash a 2012 law that boosted the status of the Russian language in parts of Ukraine where it is widely spoken.

'One language'
"Why try to force people to speak only one language – Ukrainian?" said Olga, a teacher in Simferopol, recalling how Crimea was part of Russia from the late 18th century until 1954, when Soviet leaders made it part of Ukrainian territory.

“It shows no respect for our culture and tradition,” she added.

Many Russian-speakers worry that Ukraine’s new government will be pulled to the right by ultra-nationalist groups that played a major role in the protests.

Russian officials have warned that Ukraine's political upheaval represents a threat to its citizens in Ukraine, many of whom live in Crimea. Moscow says it went to war with Georgia in 2008 to protect its passport-holders there.

“If the lives and health of our compatriots are in danger . . . we won’t stay to one side,” Leonid Slutsky, who leads Russia’s parliamentary committee on ties with ex-Soviet states, said yesterday in Simferopol.

The city could be a flashpoint today, with anti-Maidan protesters planning a rally outside parliament and pro-revolution Crimean Tatars intending to oppose them. The Tatars suffered severe oppression during Soviet times, and reject closer ties with Moscow.

“We were with the opposition all the way, our people were injured in Kiev,” said activist Zair Smedlyaev, as dozens of Tatars gathered outside their headquarters in Simferopol.

“The riot police who attacked and killed people in Kiev are being protected and praised here,” he added.

“We have kicked out one dictator and now Crimea’s leaders want to drag our native land into a Russian dictatorship. We will not let that happen.”