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Sifting through the chaos of Crimea

Ukraine's autonomous peninsula has become the focal point of new global geopolitical tensions.

Last updated: 02 Mar 2014 20:52
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Armed men took control of Simferopol's political offices, airport and warm-water Black Sea port on March 1 [EPA]

Simferopol, Ukraine - Downtown Simferopol has become a bit chaotic.

In the past several days, the grounds around the Crimean parliament building here in Simferopol have played host to several pro-Russian rallies, heavily armed men of unconfirmed origins and a make-shift karaoke concert.

At any given moment, guards with automatic weapons might allow protesters and a smattering of journalists to approach the legislative building. Alternatively, a group of self-appointed guards with orange and black ribbons might form an 18-metre circle around the parliament and forbid people from approaching. Sometimes, there are loudspeakers blasting kitsch rock music.

Pro-Russia forces surround Crimean base

A fourteen-minute walk away, men with shields stand watch outside the Crimean Ministry of the Interior. "Just in case something happens," they all said. No-one really seems to know what is going on, but everyone seems to have a different answer as to why they are out on the street.

"It's about autonomy - it's been our main demand in Crimea for a long time," said protester Andrey Kilmenchko on Saturday as he stood, "guarding" the parliament building with a few friends. Kilmenchko and others had assembled in a long line, they said, to protect people from danger - but would not give any further information.

The 42-year old shrugged when asked about the Russian flags flying overhead. He wasn't quite sure how the flags got there, he said, but hopefully the Russians will just use a little bit of leverage in Crimea and then go home.

However, now that Russian troops have arrived, it remains unclear exactly long they'll stay. 
 
Enter Russian troops

"That was all a side-show," said Andrew Weiss, the vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington DC and a former Russian and Ukraine adviser to the Clinton administration.
 
The real message from the pro-Russia political rallies in Crimea is that the government in Kiev is not fully in control of the country, Weiss told Al Jazeera.

Russian media outlets have cast the EuroMaidan protests in Kiev unfavourably since they began in late November, referring to anti-government protesters as "fascists" with rabid Ukrainian nationalist tendencies. The presence of far-right groups has also been reported by western media outlets.

This message has resonated strongly in Ukraine's eastern and southern regions, especially in Crimea where Russian is still the lingua franca. Many Crimeans identify as ethnically Russian, and worry that politicians in Kiev are out of touch with them.

We are currently under occupation by the Russians.

Egiz Abduraman, Tatar representative

However, the Crimean Tatars, a strong, united political group, has not been won over by Russia's vague promises to help Crimea gain greater freedom.

"We are currently under occupation by the Russians," said Egiz Abduraman, a member of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people.

The Crimean Tatars were deported in their thousands to Central Asia, and many to the infamous gulags, after World War II on orders from Joseph Stalin. Most only returned to Crimea in 1992. In a way, the peninsula's quasi-autonomous status today is a nod, in part, to the Crimean Tatars, said Oksana Nesterenko, a Ukrainian legal expert currently studying at the Wilson Center in Washington DC.

The status of "autonomous republic" is usually granted to an area inhabited by ethnic or linguistic minority, Nesterenko said. The case in Crimea is slightly different - the Tatars today make up only 12 percent of the population - but the peninsula was granted the status for a variety of historic and political reasons.

Autonomy or closer ties to Kiev?

On Wednesday, February 26, Crimean Tatars demonstrated outside of the Simferopol parliament building in support of the new national government and the ousting of Moscow-leaning President Viktor Yanukovich, but the gathering ended when the group clashed with pro-Russian protesters that had gathered nearby.

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"We don't think that Russia wants a conflict," Abduraman said, but, nevertheless, having Russian troops on the ground in Ukraine is a political provocation. He added that there hasn't been ethnic conflict in 25 years and he hopes that one will not be set one off now.

In a remarkable turn of events on Sunday, the Tatars, who by virtue of their ethnicity, have helped Crimea to gain greater autonomy from the Ukrainian state, are now calling for closer ties to Kiev - while the ethnic Russians of the peninsula are eager for a greater political distance from officials in the capital. 

The fight for influence

"The Crimean Question" has long been a matter of contention between Russia and Ukraine, after Nikita Khrushev gifted the peninsula to Ukraine in 1954 - without envisioning the future dissolution of the Soviet Union.
 
Crimea has been an autonomous republic since 1992 after Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991.

A 1992 writing of the Crimean Constitution was the closest the peninsula got to full constitutional autonomy, but more recent versions have left Simferopol closer to Kiev than some Crimeans would like.
 
According to the legal constitution, Crimea is still under the control of Kiev - and its taxes still go through the capital in the country's north - but Crimea maintains its own parliamentary governing body.

Officially, Crimea has not declared independence from Ukraine - rather it is reasserting its autonomy from Kiev and Russian troops are there to help "restore order".

Grievances

During Yanukovich's presidency, Crimeans became particularly frustrated with their financial relationship with the government in Kiev, said Andriy Bychenko with the Kiev-based Razmukov Center.
 
While Crimea's population of roughly two million people overwhelmingly supported Yanukovich in his 2010 election, it was due in large part to his pro-Russian rhetoric. Approximately 60 percent of the population in Crimea comprises ethnic Russians who tend to favour closer ties with Moscow, rather than the west.

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However, the former president brought "Donetsk-style" politics - typified by heavy doses of corruption and intimidation - to Kiev with him. As a consequence, Crimean tax dollars, among other things, disappeared - to the great chagrin of Crimeans, Bychenko said.

Ultimately however, Crimea has little recourse. It doesn't make political sense for Crimea to separate from Ukraine, and there's not really a lot more autonomy that Crimea could hope to gain, Bychenko told Al Jazeera.
 
Ukraine's southern peninsula is highly reliant on Kiev economically: about two-thirds of Crimea's regional budget is supplied by Kiev, according to Ukrainian media reports. Additionally, the Ukrainian peninsula's supply of water and electricity flows primarily from Ukraine. Without Kiev, Crimea would be in difficult straits.
 
Bychenko added that the majority of Crimeans make their income from tourists, mostly Russians, who arrive in Crimea on train via Ukraine. An unstable political situation in the region will seriously hurt Crimea's already wobbly economy.

Moscow or Kiev?

The Kremlin is fully aware of Crimea's economic fragility and, logically, should not want Crimea to become a Russian responsibility, said Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and a Russian military expert.

It would be better to have "Crimea within Ukraine with some degree of political autonomy, so that the peninsula could be used as a tool, which it can use against pro-Western systems", he said.

With tanks rolling down roads not far from Simferopol, Russia has certainly gained leverage. 
 
"Ultimately," said Bychenko, "the ones who are going to suffer from the current political crisis in Crimea will be the Crimeans."

Follow Katherine Jacobsen on Twitter: @kajtweets

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