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March 10, 2014

On The Scene: Elizabeth Arrott in Yalta, Crimea

by Elizabeth Arrott, Sebastian Meyer

The fight over Crimea’s future has pitted Russia against Ukraine.  But loyalties are not so clear cut on the multi-ethnic peninsula.

In Yalta, a seaside resort on the Crimean coast where Allied leaders began redrawing the map of Europe near the end of World War II, the map may be about to change again.

Pro-Russian forces have taken control across Crimea and on March 16, a referendum could help move the Ukrainian region to full Russian rule.

But despite being a region on the brink, for the most part, tensions slid away for a day along Yalta’s promenade.  Families strolled along the shore, enjoying the sea, and each other.  Further down, a pro-Russian rally gathered under the watchful eye of Lenin, reflecting the sentiment of many in Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority.

Svetlana is a Russian citizen.  Her husband, Rustem, is Ukrainian - a Crimean Tatar.  She moved to Ukraine three years ago and believes Moscow’s intervention in the name of protecting Russians is false.

“Nobody does any harm to Russian people here.  I know it myself," she said. "Everything is very peaceful here.  Everything used to be very peaceful until Putin came.”

Rustem adds that the only harm is to the region’s non-Russians.  His comments attract a few angry onlookers.

“The rights of Crimean Tatars and the rights of Ukrainian people are being violated. I am appealing to you, please protect us.  Have a look.  This is exactly what I am talking about, " Rustem said, adding that he is ready to fight for what is dear to him.

“We are waiting to see what happens.  If it changes, we will protect our motherland.”

It is that concept of motherland that is at the heart of this conflict.  For centuries, Russians claimed Crimea as their own.  It has inspired generations of poets and playwrights, Chekov among them and Moscow is poised to claim it again.