Friday, February 28, 2014

Friends and Neighbours

"Crimea has ended up in the middle of a quarrel between Ukraine and Russia and we will defend Crimea. Our problems are not with Russians but with Russia's politics and its leader, Putin. He sees the loss of Ukraine as a serious event because it could lead to more trouble between Russia and its neighbours.
Russia did this to us [Soviet deportations; entire Tatar population deported for several decades to Central Asia], so why would we ever want to remain with them?"
Tatar furniture maker, Edem

"We Russians in Crimea love this place and we have been here for decades and centuries. I hate what they did in Kyiv. I want to be part of Russia and I want that today because we are brothers from the same nation."
Pavel Popovich, former Soviet army officer
"Crimea is not Russia" chanted the Tatars before assaulting the parliament building. Those loyal to Moscow screamed "The Crimea is Russian". And never the twain shall meet in sentiment, but most certainly in bitter conflict one against the other. Crimean Tatars loyal to Kyiv, chanting "Allahu akbar" clashed with Russian-Ukrainians in Simferopol.

Crimean Tatars clash with a police officer in front of a local government building in Simferopol, Crimea. (Andrew Lubimov, AP Photo)

A Tatar group shoved past riot police and into the Crimean parliament. There they managed to halt debate on a motion to secede from Ukraine. Russia, according to Putin's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, was "carefully watching what is happening in Crimea"; watching, most carefully, but doing absolutely nothing to instill fear or expectations, depending on which side was watching back.

On Wednesday in Sevastopol there was a decided Russian presence; an armoured personnel carrier sat beside a control-access checkpoint, and other armed vehicles moved into public spaces, guarding Russia's Black Sea fleet in the Crimean port. Russia had placed 150,000 troops close to the Ukrainian border on alert, ordering urgent exercises to test combat readiness. Not interfering, nor inferring, simply watching. Carefully.

This is meant to be a four-day refresher-course in watching, carefully, and grooming the country's military in a preparedness exercise, sending no particular message, just that Russia is ... watching. Also watching were Russians wearing combat gear, ski masks, armed with assault rifles. Russia must protect its interests. And assure that the interests of Ukraine's Russian minority are being looked after in the Crimea.

The Crimea is formally part of Ukraine, but the peninsula has a distinct purpose for Russia; its main port for its Black Sea fleet. Sevastopol hosts a branch of Moscow State University, and Dom Moscow, funded by Moscow. Access to the Mediterranean Sea along with that of Syria's naval facility represent Russia's vital access to vital interests without which Russia cannot see itself achieving its goal of dominance.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Dueling pro and anti-Russian rallies in Simferopol

And so, thousands of Tatars and thousands of Russians jeered, chanted and whistled insults to each other, waving aloft Ukrainian, Tatar, Crimean and Russian flags, standing guard before the autonomous republic's headquarters with a thin line of police keeping them apart. Ukrainians make up about 25% of the Crimean population, Tatars 15% and Russians 60%. Make of that what you will.

"The Russian forces are here in Crimea to protect the Russians, or so they say. They have forgotten that we are the original people here and we must have a say. And what we say is that it is very dangerous for us to have Russian forces here. The real reason a lot of the Russians here support Moscow is because they are dependent on them for jobs associated with the military", said Elzara Abdaramanova, a Tatar.

"That Vladimir Putin is the one to blame for what is happening here today. I would like to say more to you but I can't", divulged 78-year-old Gulsa Mamedovna Samidinova, speaking both Tatar and Russian.

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