Sevastopol: A Russian city inside Ukraine's borders?

As Ukraine's interim government worries about holding the country together, Sevastopol, a seaside port on the Crimean peninsula, makes no bones about its Russian sympathies.

By , Correspondent

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    Pro-Russian protesters wave Russia's flag gathered in front of city hall in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol in Crimea, on Monday.
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Ukraine’s population of 46 million is roughly split in half between those who want stronger ties with Moscow and those who are pushing for the country to follow a more Europe-leaning democracy. But you wouldn't know that in Sevastopol.

In this picturesque city, located along the Black Sea on the southern tip of the Crimean peninsula, it’s rare to see signs written in Ukrainian, and even more rare to hear anything other than Russian spoken in the streets, shops, or cafes. Ships and submarines from Russia’s Black Sea Naval Fleet, which has its home in the city, can been seen from the waterfront promenade. Russian flags fly from rooftops.

So when the interim president in Kiev, Oleksandr Tuchynov, warned today of a "serious threat" of separatism in Ukraine, there is no doubt that Sevastopol and the Crimean peninsula was one of those places that he meant.

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Fears of a national split are now focused on Sevastopol and the Crimean Peninsula, who many worry could ask the Kremlin to protect its mostly ethnic Russian population from the nationalistic “fascists” running the country from Kiev – i.e. the anti-government protesters who had been demonstrating for three months on Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan.

“This is a Russian city and always has been,” says Vitaly Rodyonkov, a taxi driver in Sevastopol. “I don’t understand these people on Maidan. Who are they to tell me what my government should do? We don’t need these people. We are Russians, plain and simple.”

Looking eastward

Tensions have continued to mount across Ukraine as the interim government in Kiev tries to form a unity government to run the country until early elections in May. The impeached President Viktor Yanukovych is still at large, and angry Ukrainians in the pro-Russia east and south have gathered in city centers to express disenfranchisement from a government they do not support.

Sevastopol is no exception. Many of the 350,000-odd residents are deeply suspicious of the interim government in Kiev and the Maidan movement, highlighted by a large pro-Russia rally on Sunday night. Several thousand people attended and demanded the appointment of Alexsey Chali, a Russian citizen, to be the new mayor of the city, after the former city administrator, a Yanukovych appointee, stepped down. On Monday night, the Sevastopol city council complied.

Some worry that Mr. Chali's appointment is the first step in Sevastopol’s move to be annexed by Russia. And once this city goes, many fear, the entire peninsula could go with it. Chali has yet to publicly address the matter.

But anti-Maidan sentiment is prominent in the city. On Tuesday, a smaller group of demonstrators gathered in front of the city administration building to show their support for Chali, chanting, “Russia! Russia!”

The crowd, not nearly as impassioned as the scenes from Kiev’s Independence Square over the past three months, met few dissenters. Nevertheless, a newly formed team of “defenders of Sevastopol,” calling themselves the Russian Block were scattered throughout the crowd. The members, much like a Russian version of the "self-defense" teams in Kiev's Maidan, were decked out in blue camouflage with Russia’s red, white, and blue flags pinned to their lapels.

In recent days, groups such as Russian Block have formed here and in other cities in the east, such as Donetsk. The members of the group say they will protect their city administration buildings from Maidan-style protesters.

Crimea and Russia

The region's Russian sympathies come from a long history as part of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. The peninsula became part of the Russian Empire in the 18th century, when Russia annexed the territory from the Crimean Khanate. In 1954, The Soviet Union gave the peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. When the Soviet Union broke up, Crimea became part of independent Ukraine.

The Russian presence remains strong. A little more than half of the population is Russian, followed by Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, a Turkic minority that has been an outspoken proponent of Ukraine becoming part of the European Union.

Russia’s Black Sea Naval Fleet holds a lease to the ports here until 2042, making it strategically important to Moscow. About 15,000 Russian sailors, officers and support staff are based in the city, and locals benefit from the jobs and business they bring.

Speculation over Russia’s next move in Ukraine has overshadowed events here this week, particularly after Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called into question the legitimacy of Ukraine’s interim government.

Describing the series of events that resulted in Mr. Yanukovych's flight from Kiev as an "armed uprising," Mr. Medvedev warned that "Strictly speaking, there is nobody to speak [in Kiev]. The legitimacy of a whole range of organs of power working there raises substantial doubts."

Such talk – combined with parliamentary decisions in Kiev that appear antagonistic to the east and south, like the decision on Sunday to repeal a law that protected Russian as a minority language – is likely to stoke fears in the Ukrainian east and south that the country is turning lawless.

"If [the interim government in Kiev] allows Crimea to live as it pleases, the territory is ready to be part of the Ukrainian state. If there are some oppressions of Russian-speaking population, then the situation might change," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.

In that case, Russia could step in, Mr. Zharikhin adds. "If the process of 'Ukrainianization' of the Russian-speaking population goes on or anything else happens, Crimea will turn to Russia for help, and Russia will have to render assistance."

That could mean annexing or granting "independence" to Crimea, much as Russia did with two pro-Russian breakaway territories of Georgia, Akhazia and South Ossetia, following the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.

Pro-Maidan minority

Sevastopol is not without its supporters of a more Westward-oriented Ukraine. But, pro-Maidan activists like Viktor Neganov say they are facing an uphill battle.

On Sunday, a bus load of government riot police returning home from Kiev were received as heroes. The police unit, known as the Berkut, has been accused of shooting live rounds that killed as many 80 people on Thursday in Kiev.

Mr. Neganov has organized several demonstrations to promote the Maidan movement in Sevastopol, but only a maximum of 120 people showed up, he says.  Pro-Russia supporters threw eggs at them and threatened them, he said. When Neganov questioned city administration representatives on Sunday about how they could elect a mayor in Sevastopol when the city has no such position in its constitution, he was punched and kicked by angry, pro-Russia supporters, he said.

“I’m very seriously worried about the separation issue, more than they are in Kiev,” he says. “I’m already telling my family to prepare themselves in case we have to leave Sevastopol and move to Kiev. The threat of separation is very real here.”

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