Militias form in Crimea, Ukraine’s Russian bastion

Screen grab from a video showing militias demonstration in the streets of Odessa. 
 
Although Kiev and the mainly pro-European regions in western Ukraine have returned to relative calm after the ousting of president Victor Yanukovich, tension is rising in the country’s east and in Crimea, where Russian influence is dominant. In Crimea, a highly strategic peninsula and the only majority Russian-speaking region in Ukraine, militia groups formed in the past few days appear determined to defy the new authorities in Kiev.
 
Like the rest of the country, Crimean cities such as Odessa and Sevastopol also experienced the “Maidan” protest movement sparked by former president Yanukovich’s refusal to sign a trade deal with the European Union. But 60 percent of the region’s residents are Russian speakers, and many of them look favourably upon the country having closer relations with its neighbour Russia. Clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Europe supporters have broken out during protests, particularly in the days before Yanukovich’s removal.
 
Clashes between pro-Europe and pro-Russia supporters in the city of Kerch, in Crimea. 
 
Since then, the tension has stepped up a notch, notably after the Ukrainian parliament’s decision on Sunday to cancel a 2012 law that officially made Russia a regional language in parts of the country where Russian speakers made up more than 10% of the population. In response, pro-Russian protesters decided to form self-defence brigades (called “Narodnaia Druzina”) in Sevastopol to “defend the city” against the new, pro-Europe leaders in Kiev. Hundreds of men have already signed up.
 
Video showing volunteers signing up for a militia in Simferopol on February 23. 
 
Militiamen in the streets of Odessa on Feburary 23.

“We want the pro-Europeans to see we are strong, too”

Yuri is a jurist and a blogger who lives in Simferopol, Crimea’s administrative capital.
 
I joined the popular militia on Sunday. I didn’t take part in the pro-Russian movement before president Yanukovich’s removal, but I’ve since decided to join in. It’s important for me to protect our ethnic and national interests. My parents and I were born in Crimea and have always lived here.

The militia is not aggressive; we’re not radicals. Our approach is preventive. We want to be in a position to defend ourselves against decisions by the new leaders that may harm Russian speakers. We will only take up arms if we are forced to; in other words, only if the pro-Europeans provoke us. We want them to see that we are strong, too.
 
To sign up, I just had to give my name and phone number. They didn’t ask for anything else. They didn’t give me any specific instructions. Of course it’s best if members already have some self-defence skills, but it’s not a prerequisite. They taught how to load and unload a machine gun to those who didn’t know. I already knew how to do it. I had military training during my studies and was a reserve lieutenant.
 
It was predictable that Ukraine would one day be torn between pro-Europeans and pro-Russians. But we are very angry with Victor Yanukovich; he was a weak politician with little character. Now, submitting to “ukrainisation” against our will is out of the question. I wouldn’t be opposed to Crimea joining Russia. I think it would be good for the region’s economy. But this needs to be done democratically, through a referendum. Making Ukraine a federal state with and giving regions more autonomy is also an acceptable option to me.
 
On Monday, pro-Russian protesters took on Sevastopol’s city hall. The former mayor, who belonged to Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, had already resigned. The protesters chose their new leader by a show of hands: Aleksei Chaliy, a Russian citizen and businessman. The tense climate worries our second Observer in Sevastopol, who is pro-Europe.

“These militias now think of themselves as the real police of Sevastopol”

Victor Neganov is one of the organisers of the pro-Europe movement in Sevastopol.
 
I’ve been organising protests in Sevastopol since November 22 [when the Maidan movement started]. From the start, we’ve had to deal with violence from pro-Russians. At first, there were a few hundred of them who would insult us and hit us during our demonstrations.. But there have been many more of them ever since Yanukovich’s fall. There were perhaps 20,000 people who protested over the weekend. I went to see their leaders and asked whether they support the idea of Crimea joining Russia. All I got as a response were punches.

Many now gather in town at the end of the workday. They are often armed with batons and baseball bats. I haven’t seen any guns, but many of them are former Marine officers, so there’s no doubt they’ll be able to find them easily. There are quite a few that are members of the city’s boxing club, which is run by former champion Alexander Sinyavsky.
 
These militias now think of themselves as the real police in Sevastopol. They treat us like fascists and Nazis. It’s quite ridiculous: since we’re pro-European, they see us aggressors from Europe, like the Nazis in 1941. I’d really like to see the tension subside. Everything depends on the next government and the way it deals with issues related to Russian-speaking citizens.
 
Crimea is a highly strategic region for Russia, which has a lease on Sevastopol port, where some of its military fleet is based. Situated on the Black Sea, it is Russia’s only access to the Mediterranean Sea. Crimea was originally Russian, but it was given to Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954 as a symbol of friendship between the two countries. The Financial Times, citing a Russian official, says Moscow hasn’t ruled out military intervention in Crimea if the new Ukrainian leaders get too close to Europe.
 
Post written with France 24 journalists Corentin Bainier (@cbainier) and Polina Myakinchenko (@pollyjourn).
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