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Crimeans speak out about the ongoing crisis

Residents of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula talk to Al Jazeera about Russia's takeover and possible independence.

Last updated: 03 Mar 2014 12:34
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Crimea will be holding a referendum on greater independence from Kiev [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

Simferopol, Ukraine - The Crimean peninsula, in Ukraine's southeast, has become the new focal point of the country's political crisis after Russian troops took control of the region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had the right to invade Crimea, which is home to Russian military bases. But Ukraine's new prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, said the move amounted to an act of war.

Russia contends that Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who make up a large percentage of Crimea's population, are being threatened after the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.

In Simferopol, Crimea's regional capital, pro-Russian demonstrations were held and the regional parliament and airport were taken over by unidentified gunmen who are believed to be Russian troops. They have also surrounded Ukrainian bases in Crimea, including a port where marines were based. However, no gunfire has been reported.

While most of Simferopol is relatively calm, some shops in the downtown area remain closed and on Sunday, dozens of protesters stood guard in front of a Lenin statue, some waving Russia's flag in the centre of the city.

Crimea will be holding a referendum on whether it wants greater independence from Kiev on March 30. It was originally planned for May 25, the same day Ukrainians will vote for a new president.

Residents of the area talked to Al Jazeera regarding Russia's military movements, the referendum, escalating violence, and Crimean independence.

Aleksey Zhikov, 29

Aleksey Zhikov [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

On the Russian troop buildup in Crimea:

"I think this has a positive side, because Russia's presence on the Crimean peninsula psychologically helps the Crimeans.

"Many citizens are Russian-speaking; part of them are Russian by nationality… [they] get into patriotic emotions and they feel this patriotic spirit in them when they see Russians here."

Should Crimea become independent?

"[I] would like for a referendum to take place so that we can get an opinion of the majority of the population."

If the referendum took place, how would you vote? 

"I haven't decided yet. I have positive attitude both towards Ukraine and Russia... [Yanukovich's ouster] was completely illegitimate, just as those who are in power in Kiev right now are also illegitimate and illegal. I would like to see another political leader in Ukraine and completely different political system… not one based on nationalist and radical people, those who are present on Maidan." 

Who do you think is responsible for violence at the Kiev protests?

"The ones who should be responsible for deaths and for the situation itself is the opposition to the ex-government, the government itself and the western countries claiming to help build democracy."

Why should Russia, a foreign country, send troops to Kiev?

"I think that Russia is present here because right now extremist powers are taking a hold of the whole country."

Valentina Zhuravleva, 61, pensioner
Valentina Zhuravleva [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

Was the ousting of the president justified?

"During the rule of Yanukovich… life didn't become any better; it was just as bad as the last 20 years. People who went against Yanukovich were against corruption, against poverty, and bad economic conditions and that is why those in power were overthrown.

"I believe Russia should not… bring its troops here. There should be economic and trade relations between Ukraine and Russia but definitely not troops, not armed forces."

What is the likelihood of the crisis escalating to war?

"I don't think there is going to be war here because there are many people here who are forming self-defence groups. They might be against Kiev for example, but still no matter what, they are not going to let any fights happen."

Should Crimea become independent?

"I believe Crimea on its own cannot survive; it should become a part of some other larger entity. It can be either Ukraine or Russia, but for example if you take a look at Russia and the places that are far away from the capital, the usual little cities and villages… they are not very prosperous, so what we need is a good, not corrupt government."

Olga Nosovskaya
Olga Nosovskaya [Kristina Jovanovski/al Jazeera]

On the Russian troop buildup in Crimea:

"My opinion is very, very positive because if we have so many people standing here, that is the only reason why everything is still intact and protected.

"People are all not very afraid of anything - they are all very calm. This is the opinion of many people, not just mine.

"I'm strongly for strengthening the autonomy of Crimea as a separate entity - be it either in Russia or Ukraine - [but] more independent and more powerful [than] Crimea itself."

Which side do you feel loyal to?

"I was born in [the] USSR and nothing can change [that] fact. My passport is Ukrainian but I speak Russian and I consider myself to be Russian. As long as there is no provocation from somebody's side, for example from the side of Kiev, everything will be OK and quiet."

Leniye Ismailova, 23, journalist and member of the Tatar ethnic group
Leniye Ismailova [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

On the Russian troop buildup in Crimea:

"When the troops of some country are present on the territory of a different sovereign country, it's nothing other than intervention and it's also [breaching] all the international treaties that have been signed."

On being a member of the Tatar minority:

"I'm not just concerned about [Tatars]. I'm concerned for all [ethnic] groups that are present in Crimea because if something happens, it will be war and war is not merciful towards anyone.

"I lived in Crimea all my life and I never felt discriminated against in any way, and actually all nationalities living in Crimea have been pretty friendly… up until the moment Russia brought its troops over.

"It's very hard to predict anything that's going to happen because the actions that Russia has been taking lately seem very illogical to me. However, I think if any of the other outside powers intervene, then the situation will be stabilised."

Svetlana Tarasenko, 50, English teacher

Svetlana Tarasenko [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

On the Russian troop buildup in Crimea:

"I think it is very good for the Russian people living here."

What about people who see themselves as Ukrainians?

"They are very few here and when they come here they very, very [quickly become] Russian. So it is very, very difficult to identify when you see people walking along this street, you will not identify who is Russian or who is Ukrainian."

Do you consider yourself more Russian or Ukrainian?

"Mentally I'm Russian because Russian culture is my culture…that is my background… in my passport it says I'm Ukrainian, but mentally I'm Russian."

Should Crimea become independent?

"Crimea is not strong enough to be absolutely independent. It must be an autonomous republic as it is now, but the rights of the Crimeans are only on paper, they are not real… Crimeans tried to make Kiev listen [to] us; they didn't."

"I think [Crimea] should stay with Ukraine because… all the links with Ukraine now are much stronger than with our links with Russia. But mentally we are Russian, and we are supposed to be heard at least."

Oleg Gorneychuk, 59

Oleg Gorneychuk [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

On tensions between Russia and Ukraine:

"Most of the population is Russian - we are not against Ukraine. My father is from Ukraine, the western part, and my mother is Russian. I have no problems either with Europe or Russia in the east or the west, but I'm against violence.

"I was born in Russia but I lived in Ukraine, and I felt good everywhere and I lived pretty well under Ukraine as well. It is such a shame that brothers are killing each other right now."

On the ousting of Yanukovich:

"The law is the same for everyone and we should all abide that law. I've been to many countries over Europe and I know that they respect the law a lot. And if we have chosen [and] elected this president, he should have served his term… we should have just waited if [people] didn't like him."

Sergei, 23
Sergei [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

On the Russian troop buildup in Crimea:

"[I think] it's aggression on Russia's side. I understand [that some people feel a connection to Russia] and in my opinion it's all due to some kind of post-Soviet mentality…people developed and it's mostly due to some historical reasons."

Is there a fear that the conflict will escalate?

"I think in such a situation, only [a] fool wouldn't be afraid. But I also think such fear shouldn't stop us and make us just put our hands down.

"The prime reason for such fears is the uncertainty and… absence of knowledge about the situation. I don't want any war to start, but if Russia attacks that is the only possible response; that's what we need to do."

Was the ousting of Yanukovich legitimate?

"I think it was the necessary step and it actually helped us avoid even worsening the situation. If Yanukovich was still in power it would... lead to an even worse situation."

1917

Source:
Al Jazeera
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