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8 February 2010updated 15 Jun 2021 4:14pm

Crimea watch

Ethnic tensions rise in the first presidential vote since the Orange Revolution

By Justin Vela

On a typically snowy January day in the port city of Sevastopol, on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, a handful of residents are marching through the centre of town, their large Russian flags held high. The demonstrators are a mixed bunch: they vary in age between mid-twenties and early seventies, and they represent no one organisation or political group. As they walk, they salute a series of Soviet-era monuments, acknowledging the frequent cheers and honking car horns of passers-by. “We want to improve the mood of the city,” says Tamara Simonovic, one of the marchers. “We want to prove that everyone who lives here is Russian.”

Stretching out from southern Ukraine into the Black Sea, the Crimean peninsula was part of Russia until 1954, when the then Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, transferred control over it to Ukraine. Fifty years on, ties with the east remain strong: Crimea’s population is predominantly ethnic Russian, and Sevastopol is home to the Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet. Tensions between Ukraine and its vast neighbour are closer to the surface here than perhaps anywhere else in the country.

On 7 February, Ukrainians vote for their new leader in a run-off poll, the final round of the first presidential election since the Orange Revolution in late 2004. Both candidates – Yulia Tymoshenko, the current prime minister, and Viktor Yanukovich, the opposition leader who lost to the pro-western Viktor Yushchenko in 2004 – have support from the Kremlin. One might expect the people of Sevastopol to be jubilant. In fact, they are anything but.

The first round of voting showed Crimea’s considerable backing – about 60 per cent – for Yanukovich, who had the open support of the Russian leader Vladimir Putin in 2004. But not everybody is impressed. The marchers are among a number of Sevastopol residents who refuse to support either candidate. Both, they argue, would only “Ukrainianise” Crimea further, at a time when Russian culture is already under pressure there. While the peninsula’s official language is Ukrainian, most residents’ mother tongue is Russian, but its use is forbidden in many local schools and courts, and distribution of Russian films is discouraged.

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“Tymoshenko and Yanukovich are not ordinary people,” says Boris Petrovich, head of the Unity of Soviet Officers, one of several pro-Russian organisations in Sevastopol. “They are people from high society who make money from energy. This election will not change anything. Especially not for the better.” In Petrovich’s opinion, Yanukovich is much more of a Ukrainian nationalist than his public image might suggest. Tymoshenko, who helped Yushchenko lead the Orange Revolution, is already deeply unpopular in Crimea. Petrovich would like to see Ukraine reintegrate with Russia. At the least, he hopes it will join the Union State of Russia and Belarus, an economic bloc headed by the leaders of both countries. He believes doing so would calm tensions between Moscow and Kiev.

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“Many years ago, there was unity between different Slavic peoples,” he says. “That was the Soviet Union. In the future, we hope that the same unity will come back.”

Romanyuk Olersandr, a lecturer in political science at Kharkov University and Tymoshenko supporter, doesn’t believe the Unity of Soviet Officers proposals have much potential. “If Yanukovich wins and supports the separatist organisations [such as the Unity of Soviet Officers], soon we will start impeachment,” he says. “Joining Ukraine to Russia is only possible if Russia eats Ukraine.”

Sea change

But while integration is an unpopular idea in much of Ukraine, it holds great sway in Sevastopol. Helen Chernenko, an accountant for the Crimean Energy Company, is more interested in business than politics, but she admits that, as an ethnic Russian, she likes “the idea of a single government between Ukraine and Russia”.

She worries, however, that there would be drawbacks. “It is an economic question,” she says, pointing out that the strength of the Russian economy would likely overwhelm Ukraine’s plans for growth. “If Ukraine and Russia get together, Ukraine will not be able to develop itself. Ukraine needs to be alone.”

The most important question for voters in Sevastopol, meanwhile, is whether the Black Sea Fleet will remain in the city after 2017, when its lease is due to expire. Chernenko estimates that 70 per cent of people in Sevastopol are connected somehow to the fleet. “It provides most of the jobs in Sevastopol. The city is full of retired officers and their families. They will feel abandoned by Russia if the fleet moves. The loss will be hard for the city.”

It is believed that if Yanukovich wins the presidency, he will extend the lease; if Tymoshenko wins, she is unlikely to renew.

Chernenko cannot say exactly how Sevastopol’s residents will react if the fleet is forced to move, but she knows it will not be positive, and anticipates heightened tensions between the region and the Ukrainian government. As a result, she is voting for Yanukovich in the run-off. “He understands that communication with Russia will bring a lot to Ukraine,” she says. “If Tymoshenko wins the election, the same thing will happen in Sevastopol that has happened with the rest of Ukraine. She will get it and get a lot of money. She will sell the factories, the ships – the ground.”