News / Europe

    East and West Face Off Over Ukraine's Crimea

    People attend a rally organized mainly by ethnic Russians near the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol,  Feb. 26, 2014.
    People attend a rally organized mainly by ethnic Russians near the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol, Feb. 26, 2014.
    Reuters
    Waving the Russian flag and chanting “Russia! Russia!”, protesters in Crimea have become the last major bastion of resistance to Ukraine's new rulers.
     
    President Viktor Yanukovych's overthrow on Saturday has been accepted across the vast country, even in his power base in the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine.
     
    Sevastopol and Simferopol, UkraineSevastopol and Simferopol, Ukraine
    x
    Sevastopol and Simferopol, Ukraine
    Sevastopol and Simferopol, Ukraine
    But Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula attached to the rest of Ukraine by just a narrow strip of land, is alone so far in challenging the new order.
     
    As the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian majority, and a home to Russia's Black Sea fleet, the strategically important territory is also now the focus of a battle between Russia and the West over the future of Ukraine.
     
    Tensions are mounting in the regional capital Simferopol as separatists try to exploit the chaos after the changes in Kyiv to press demands for Russia to reclaim the territory which Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted in 1954 to the Soviet Ukraine.
     
    Washington has warned Moscow not to send in tanks, an action that could result in yet another war in a region that has been fought over - and changed hands - many times in history.
     
    But President Vladimir Putin flexed his muscles on Wednesday, putting military forces in western Russia on alert and saying Russia was acting to ensure the security of its facilities in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
     
    The view from separatists in Crimea is that there has never been a better time to appeal to Moscow for help than now.
     
    “I crossed two oceans and four seas with the Russian navy, and now I have fascists telling me what to do?” said Daniyel Romanenko, a 73-year-old retired officer, portraying the new Ukrainian leadership in the worst possible terms in a country that was overrun by Nazi Germany in World War II.
     
    “We should be given the choice to unite at last with Russia,” he said at a rally in Sevastopol, wearing his uniform.
     
    Mob rule
     
    Crimea's balmy climate once made it a favored holiday destination for Russian tsars and Soviet leaders. Its vineyards, orchards and the “green riviera” along its southern coast make for some stunning scenery.
     
    Facts About Crimea

    *An autonomous republic in Ukraine
    *Located on a peninsula between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov
    *Annexed by Russia in 1783 and was transferred to Ukraine in 1954
    *Simferopol is the capital
    *Port of Sevastopol is home of Russia's Black Sea Fleet
    *Ethnic Russians account for more than half the population
    *Official language is Ukrainian but many inhabitants speak Russian
    *Population is two million
    *Area is 26,100 square kilometers
    But even before the national parliament in Kyiv stripped Yanukovych of his powers on Saturday, after three months of protests by largely pro-Europe demonstrators, there were rallies in Crimea by worried ethnic Russians.
     
    Although he was little loved in Moscow, Russia had backed Yanukovych and his departure reduces the Kremlin's ability to influence Ukraine.
     
    For the more than one million ethnic Russians in Crimea, it increases uncertainty, and many want protection by Mother Russia, with whom cultural and religious ties are strong.
     
    Some are especially enraged that the new leaders have rolled back laws to strengthen the importance of using the Ukrainian language, which is not the mother tongue for many in Crimea, and refuse to recognize them as Ukraine's leaders.
     
    “We don't have a legitimate government so we have to look out for ourselves,” said Vladimir, a 37-year-old businessman.
     
    Taking matters into their own hands, separatist-minded protesters at a rally on Sunday voted to appoint Alexei Chaly, a Russian businessman, as the de facto mayor of Sevastopol in a show of hands.
     
    The next day the presence of a large crowd on the streets outside a meeting of the city administration ensured his appointment could not be blocked.
     
    The chaotic events, followed by more protests on Tuesday and Wednesday, and more calls for secession, underline how difficult the transition of power may be in Ukraine, especially in Crimea.
     
    "Banana Republic"
     
    Rumors that protesters from Kyiv's barricades might be on their way from the capital to put down separatist moves have prompted some Crimeans to create informal self-defense units.
     
    Around 3,000 men have signed up in Sevastopol alone, with military veterans and former members of the Berkut riot police training the younger recruits, the organizers say.
     
    In other parts of Ukraine, particularly Kyiv, the Berkut is despised as the force which fired on protesters.
     
    “We need to protect ourselves from the armed criminals coming to Crimea in masks to cause unrest. They've turned Ukraine into a banana republic,” said Gennady Basov, the leader of the Russian Bloc party that represents ethnic Russians.
     
    Unification with Russia is not the party's main aim, but it believes that splitting Ukraine down the middle - between Russian-speaking areas in the east and regions where Ukrainian is predominant in the west - makes economic and cultural sense.
     
    “Most of the economic strength of Ukraine is in the east - that's where people actually work. In the west they just go to Kyiv to protest,” Basov said, underlining ethnic Russians' contempt for the protesters in Kyiv, many of whom are from the west of the country.
     
    Such remarks show how the protests in Kyiv, triggered by Yanukovych's decision in November to spurn trade and political deals with the European Union and rebuild ties with former Soviet overlord Moscow, have widened divisions in Ukraine.
     
    For some ethnic Russians in Crimea, it was the last straw. Already connected to southern Ukraine by land that is only five kilometers (three miles) wide at some points, the region seems to them to have less in common with the rest of the country than ever.
     
    “The people don't understand this was a revolution against a criminal government, they think it's all Western influence. To them the people on the barricades are now greater enemies than the corrupt government they overthrew,” said Leonid Pylunskyy, a regional deputy for the conservative Kurultai Rukh party.
     
    Pylunskyy is the fourth generation of his family to call Crimea home, but both his children participated in the Kiev protests - his son on the barricades, his daughter providing demonstrators with hot tea and sandwiches.
     
    Rumors, rumors

     
    Barely an hour goes by without a new rumor of troops massing or protesters on their way from Kyiv to “restore order”.
     
    Putin himself stirred the pot by suddenly announcing a drill that involved putting forces in the west and center of Russia on the alert. He may be saber-rattling but is unpredictable and brooding after apparently losing a geopolitical tussle with the West over Ukraine which brought back memories of the Cold War.
     
    Many Russians regard Ukraine as little more than a Russian vassal. Opinion polls suggest a majority of Russians still view Crimea, annexed by Russia in 1783, as a Russian territory.
     
    But not all the peninsula's residents are pro-Russia or against the new political situation, as was witnessed by confrontations between rival protesters outside the regional parliament in Simferopol on Wednesday.
     
    The region is a patchwork of different ethnic groups and the Tatars, now back in numbers after their ancestors were deported to Central Asia or Russia's Urals region by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, dread the idea of integration with Russian.
     
    “In 1783 we fell under the power of the Russian empire and that's when all our sorrows began. The [Crimean ethnic] Russians can look to Putin. We're sticking with Ukraine,” Crimean Tatar leader Refat Chubarov said in an interview.
     
    Chubarov outlined what he saw as deliberate moves by the ethnic Russians to fuel tension.

    “This is their plan: they've stoked the fires in Sevastopol, now they want to light the fires in Simferopol, so all Crimea burns,” he said.
     
    Civil war or a serious threat to ethnic Russians in Crimea might, the logic goes, might bring in the Russian cavalry.
     
    “I hope I'm wrong but Russia could well decide to deploy its forces in Crimea,” Chubarov said.
     
    Battle lines drawn
     
    Rival groups of ethnic Tatars and ethnic Russians confronted each other outside the regional parliament on Wednesday but eventually dispersed after scuffles.
     
    Conflict is hardly unusual for the people of Crimea.
     
    It was inhabited or invaded by Scythians, Greeks, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Kazhars, Kipchaks, Turks and Mongols, and was part of the Roman and Byzantine empires before it became part of the Russian empire.
     
    There were fierce battles on Crimea during World War II, when it was occupied by the Nazis, and during the Crimean War which Russia lost to an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman empire and Sardinia.
     
    “We're used to being fought over. We've had the Turks, British, Germans and now this,” said Igor, a 26-year-old businessman from Simferopol.

    You May Like

    California Republicans Mull Choices in Presidential Race

    Ted Cruz tells state's Republican Convention delegates campaign will be 'battle on the ground, district by district by district,' ahead of June 7 primary

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, many Kurds are trying to escape turmoil by focusing on success of football team Amedspor

    South African Company Designs Unique Solar Cooker

    Two-man team of solar power technologists introduces Sol4, hot plate that heats up so fast it’s like cooking with gas or electricity

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensionsi
    X
    April 29, 2016 12:28 AM
    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensions

    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora