Crimea: Next flashpoint in Ukraine's crisis?

Pro-Russian protest in Sevastopol. Photo: 23 February 2014 Pro-Russian activists have been asking Moscow to help defend them from "fascists"

In fleeing revolutionary Kiev on Friday, Ukraine's now ex-President Viktor Yanukovych chose to fly to his stronghold in the south-east of the country before heading to Crimea in the deep south.

Media reports suggest he may have been preparing a yacht to flee by sea to Russia - perhaps with the help of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which has a naval base on the strategically placed peninsula.

This fuelled fears that the majority ethnic Russian Crimea, which enjoys autonomy in Ukraine, could become the next flashpoint in the ongoing political crisis.

Crimea's post of president has been abolished, and instead it has a presidential representative from Kiev. The local government is led by a prime minister appointed by Ukraine's parliament.

Tensions have been rising on the peninsula in recent days, with pro-Moscow politicians and activists organising rallies and urging Russia to help defend the territory from advancing "fascists" from the rest of Ukraine.

'Perfect chance'
A Crimean Tatar protester in Kiev hold a flag with the Crimean Tatar symbol on an EU flag Many Crimean Tatars stood alongside Ukrainian protesters in Kiev's Independence Square

Over the weekend, a crowd tore down a Ukrainian national flag in the eastern Crimean town of Kerch, replacing it with the Russian tricolor.

And only last week, the speaker of the Crimean parliament, Volodymyr Konstantynov, warned he did not rule out separating from Kiev if the situation in the country deteriorated further.

There are concerns that the current turmoil could offer the Kremlin a perfect chance to assert its claim on Crimea, a territory which many Russians believe is theirs anyway and has only come under Kiev by a bizarre twist of fate.

Map of Crimea

Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 by the then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, himself an ethnic Ukrainian.

Before the Soviet times, it was known as "the playground of Russian tsars" because of its warm climate and the sea.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has himself in recent months raised eyebrows in Ukraine and the West, when he seemed to question the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

True, the Kremlin can count on a pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea. And Russia's own Black Sea Fleet has its base in Sevastopol - the "city of Russian glory" as it has been referred to by many Russians since the Crimean War in the 19th Century.

Unlikely alliance

But the territory is not as staunchly pro-Russian as it may seem at first glance, and several key factors may come into play.

Although ethnic Russians are still a majority (58.5%), there are also a significant Ukrainian (24.4%) and Crimean Tatar populations (12.1%).

And it is the latter two which have formed an unlikely alliance, resisting any secessionist attempts.

Crimea

  • Autonomous republic within Ukraine
  • Transferred from Russia in 1954
  • Ethnic Russians - 58.5%*
  • Ethnic Ukrainians - 24.4%*
  • Crimean Tatars - 12.1%*
  • Source: Ukraine census 2001

They have their separate reasons to distrust Moscow.

Many ethnic Ukrainians have natural loyalties towards Kiev and are happy with the territory's status quo.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Tatars still remember the horrors of the mass deportation under Stalin in 1944 on the pretext of mass collaboration with the Nazis during World War II.

Tatar national leaders have warned they will resist any attempts to transfer Crimea to Moscow.

And then there is mass corruption.

In 2011, the last time I visited Crimea, I was shocked by how many people there had a feeling of outrage towards what they described as corrupt authorities on every level.

Cab drivers, fruit sellers, hotel managers - ethnic Russian, Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar - everyone was disgusted.

The hope is that this could gradually start to change with "people power" and the pledge of war on corruption spreading from Kiev's Maidan.

Many also believe that a promised association with the EU will help root out corruption.

Finally, Ukraine is not Georgia, where the Russians fought a war in 2008, in support of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Despite the present revolutionary chaos, Ukraine - Europe's second biggest country (by area) - still has capable armed forces, particularly its anti-aircraft defences.

One may also count on many thousands of battle-hardened Maidan activists joining in to defend the country.

And facing growing Western warnings, President Putin may think twice about whether Crimea - as well as Ukraine's south-eastern regions - is worth a fight.

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