The last week, the Crimea, which had been watching the events unfolding in Kyiv with some aloofness, suddenly erupted. People took to squares with radically different slogans. Some openly stated their desire to live in Russia, while others categorically opposed separation. Against this backdrop, other, equally serious processes were taking place, potentially defining what the future authorities in the Crimea will look like
The Crimea has not seen such a surge of separatism since the early 1990s when Yuriy Meshkov, the first and last Crimean president and Russia-leaning politician, came to power. Back then, Kyiv quickly intervened and settled the situation, while this time around the new Ukrainian government, brought to power by the Maidan’s victory, has been slow to react.
Various forces in the Crimea and outside hastened to take advantage of the situation. On 23 February, celebrated in Ukraine as Defender of the Fatherland Day, pro-Russian organizations brought their supporters to the streets and demanded a referendum on withdrawal from Ukraine. Separatist rallies were held in Kerch, Simferopol and Feodosiia.
All of them closely followed one scenario. A crowd would come together, shouting “Russia!”, waving the Russian flag and calling for an extraordinary meeting of the local councils (in Simferopol, the Supreme Council of the Crimea). In all places, there were attempts, sometimes successful, to pull down Ukrainian flags and replace them with Russian ones and volunteers were registered to join some self-defence units and vigilante groups.
The organizers were the same in all cases – the Russian Unity, the Russian Bloc and Cossack communities. In the Crimea, it is no secret that each of these entities is financed from Moscow in some fashion under the pretext of supporting “Russian fellow countrymen”.
In Sevastopol, where Russia’s supporters have always been present in great numbers, the demonstrators did not limit themselves to replacing flags. The city’s biggest rally ever elected its own “mayor”, businessman Oleksiy Chaly, who turned out to be a Russian citizen. However, they stopped short of open separatism even there. Chaly indeed started taking over the executive authority in the city but did so with an eye to the Ukrainian legislation. A new office was introduced for the “people’s mayor” called, literally, Chairman of the Coordinating Council to Create City Administration to Ensure the Functioning of the City. What hides under this long and convoluted name is essentially an executive body of the city council which, according to the design of local council members, is supposed to assume the functions of the Sevastopol City State Administration. Under the Ukrainian legislation, the mayor of Sevastopol is not elected but appointed by the president of Ukraine.
Remarkably, Chaly did not make any statements, at least not in public, about Sevastopol’s separation. The leaders of the Russian Unity, who orchestrated the rallies in Crimean cities, also tried to stay away from rabid separatism. “No-one can accuse us of violating the law or order,” Serhiy Aksenov, leader of the party, kept repeating. By this he evidently meant the laws of the Ukrainian state.
Nevertheless, on 26 February, thousands of Crimean Tatars gathered in front of the Supreme Council in Simferopol to declare that separation of the Crimea from Ukraine is unacceptable. Pro-Russian organizations staged their rally in the same place at the same time. A total of 10,000 to 20,000 people were gathered.
The spark that ignited the passions in Simferopol was information that an extraordinary session of the Crimea’s Supreme Council was to be held that day to possibly vote on the Crimea’s withdrawal from Ukraine. Adding fuel to the fire was a rumour that Russia was relocating some of its troops to the peninsula and was going to generously hand out Russian passports to the locals.
As the two rallies tried to outshout each other, pushing back and forth and even exchanging some punches, tense consultations were held inside the parliament’s building. The Crimean politicians indeed discussed independence of the peninsula – not from Ukraine but from the “Makedonians”, a nickname the Crimeans have given the forces representing Donetsk and Makiyivka (Makeevka in Russia, hence the sobriquet – Ed.) which have held complete control over the autonomy in the past years.
This state of affairs ran against the grain of several political forces in the peninsula which have been denied access to the decision-making process dominated by the Donbas natives. The dismissal of Anatoliy Mohyliov, who also represents Makiyivka, was a dream cherished by various and sometimes even opposing camps – pro-Russian organizations, the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars and some Party of Regions members in the Crimea who found themselves playing second fiddle to the outsiders from Donetsk. The position of this latter group was communicated to the press by Volodymyr Klychnikov, member of the Crimea’s Supreme Council, who said: “Time has come to say what has been on everyone’s lips but has not been stated publicly: the branch of ‘Makedonia’ in the Crimea is closed.”
The “common enemy” brought together political opponents. Dmitry Polonsky, one of the leaders of the Russian Unity, said in a TV interview that the responsibility for what is happening in the Crimea has been assumed in Simferopol by “two men, two political forces and two peoples”. “On the part of the Russian people in the Crimea, it is Serhiy Aksenov and the Russian Unity party,” he said. “On the part of the Crimean Tatars, a very significant and third-largest population group in the Crimea, it is Refat Chubarov and the Mejlis. There is no other authority in the Crimea today!”
Eventually, the extraordinary session of the Supreme Council, which had agitated the Crimeans so much, never took place as it lacked a quorum.
So what about separatism? Chairman of the Supreme Council Volodymyr Konstantynov, who had earlier publicly suggested that the Crimea might pursue an independent course, made an official statement on 26 February saying that the issue of withdrawal from Ukraine is not on the agenda in parliament. He called such talk a provocation aimed at “discrediting the Supreme Council of the autonomy and making it illegitimate”.
“Unfortunately, this provocation has been organized and supported by the Makiyivka team in the Crimean government. In order to stay in power, they are willing to sacrifice the social and political stability on the peninsula. To them, it is foreign land!” Konstantynov said.
On February 28, the confrontation was fueled one again. There were no official talks of Crimea’s separation. However, according to what experts called a long-developed plan, it was supposed to turn into a Ukrainian Transnistria under Moscow’s jurisdiction. The majority of the population did not want this. However, a group implementing this scenario in the Crimea was quick and tough while Kyiv’s indecisiveness boosted its chances for success. The people behind that scenario used the period of political instability in Ukraine to take over power.
Initially, the people occupying administrative buildings and military units did not identify themselves, pretending to be Ukrainians that want to join Russia. Meanwhile, Russia did not intervene openly while presenting its military mobilization as exercise.
The new government tried to deal with the situation by appointing Serhiy Kunitsyn, an official with extensive experience in the Crimea, as the new representative of the President in the Crimea. However, tension continued to escalate as numerous attempts were taken to provoke clashes that would allow Russia to justify military intervention presented as protection of its citizens or Russian-speakers in the Crimea. For some reason, the new government did not do much to prevent those provocations.
As to the residents of the Crimea, they are conservative and do not like changes. If they had to choose between Ukraine ruled by the Maidan government and separation from Ukraine with all the changes it entails, they would most likely prefer the first option.
On February 28, when the Ukrainian media world buzzed about Russian military intervention, people in Simferopol were doing their routine shopping, without panic or any specific and passionate sentiments.
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