As Crimea moves toward independence from Ukraine and closer to Russia, the mood on the streets of the capital is beginning to turn ugly.
On Wednesday, United Nations special envoy Robert Serry was stopped in Simferopol by about a dozen gunmen, who ordered him to leave the country. Mr. Serry, a former Dutch ambassador to Ukraine, refused at first but later agreed to head to the airport, cutting short his trip that was supposed to be a UN fact-finding mission.
There were more signs of the growing unease on the streets of Simferopol on Wednesday. At two pro-Russian demonstrations, some people who voiced opposition to Russia or Crimea’s independence from Ukraine were shouted down and pushed. Dissenters were labelled “provocateurs” or “liars” and surrounded by Russian sympathizers.
Anna Kramarenko and her husband, Yuiri, were yelled at and shoved by a small crowd in the city’s Lenin Square after questioning the Russian military presence and saying Crimea should not separate from Ukraine. They were surrounded while carrying their two-year-old son and made a quick exit to an underground walkway. But even after they stopped briefly to talk to The Globe and Mail, two women came up and called them liars.
“Life in Crimea was fine, why do we need the Russians?” Mr. Kramarenko said before the family hurriedly left. “They said the USA started wars there and there. So why did Russia start this war here?”
Across town at a military complex, dozens of pro-Russian demonstrators stood outside the main door, some carrying police shields emblazoned with the colours of the Crimean flag. Earlier, about 30 women gathered in front of the building holding signs calling for peace with Ukraine and membership in the European Union. Witnesses said when the pro-Russians arrived, they forced the women across the road and pushed some of them. By midday, the women had cleared off and the pro-Russians lined the front of the building.
“Today was a case of provocateurs,” said one of the pro-Russian demonstrators, who did not give his name. “They said we hurt them. But we don’t hurt anybody … The women came to show for the television cameras. We don’t want the ideas and problems that are in Ukraine.”
There was genuine support for Russia and President Vladimir Putin. Many like Igor Smilayavsky view the recent uprising in Kiev with uncertainty, worried that the same instability and violence will come to Crimea. To him the protest movement, known as Maidan, was led by nationalists and extremists such as Right Sector, a loose collection of right-wing groups that has been a small but militant part of the Maidan uprising.
“I hope that we will defend Crimea from the people in Maidan. They were fascists,” he said pointing out that his grandfather died fighting the Nazis in the Second World War. He welcomed the Russian army, saying it will help ensure none of that violence comes to Crimea. He would also like to see Crimea join Russia and praises Mr. Putin. “I like him,” he said.
Tanya Krotova agreed and said Crimeans are wary of what happened in Kiev and want independence. As for Mr. Putin, she said: “I think he is doing well.”
Farther west in the city of Yevpatoriya, where a military base has been partially taken over by Russian soldiers, Eugene Kriwenko said he was thankful for Maidan. “The Russian troops should leave,” he said as he stood outside the base with his five-year-old daughter. “What are the Russian troops doing here? This is Ukraine. I am Ukrainian.” But he acknowledged that few of his neighbours share his views, and several men gathered out front of the base made it clear their allegiances were with the Russians.
Inside the base, soldiers have professed their allegiance to Ukraine by refusing to leave and join a separate Crimean army even in the face of heavily armed Russian troops on their doorstep. “I was born here, I live here and it’s my homeland,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Sergej Matsjuk, deputy commander of the base. He added that the 300 Ukrainian soldiers were given the option of leaving but all stayed, and they are refusing to give up control of the base to the Russians.
That means the continuation of a strange standoff. About 40 Russian soldiers are guarding the entrance gates and the base armoury, where about 3,000 weapons are kept. But Lt.-Col. Matsjuk has blocked the entrance to the armoury with a truck, and is refusing to hand over the keys. “I know where they are,” he said with a smile when asked if he kept the keys on him. For now, the Russians are content with guarding the weapons depot and mingling with the Ukrainians, who give them water and access to the bathrooms.
“History has shown that there is a way to resolve any situation,” Lt.-Col. Matsjuk said. Asked what that might be this time, he shrugged and replied: “I don’t know.”
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