Ukraine crisis: Order breaks down ahead of Crimea vote
- 9 March 2014
- From the section Europe
They sprung up quickly and quietly across this rugged peninsula: impromptu roadblocks, well-manned and at times aggressive.
We pulled up to one on the road from Sevastopol to the Crimean capital, Simferopol. Cars were opened to ensure that nothing - or nobody - was being transported from western Ukraine, the seat of what many here call the "illegal revolution".
The checkpoint was under mixed command - Ukrainian police who had defected from Kiev to Crimea's pro-Russian autonomous government, heavily-armed soldiers wielding AK-47 rifles and a group of Cossacks - one of whom was ready to talk.
"I've come from Russia," he said. "We have the right to be here because the local people asked for our help, to protect them from the fascists of western Ukraine."
Beside him stands a man with the Serbian national emblem on his uniform: four Cyrillic "s" letters - the Serbian abbreviation for "Only Unity Saves the Serbs".
Having been based in Belgrade, I strike up conversation in Serbian.
"Yes, I'm from southern Serbia," he tells me. "I've come to help my Russian Orthodox brothers - we are the same and it's normal that I'm here."
He denies being a paramilitary - but it's clear he's a Chetnik, the nationalist Serbs who fought in the Yugoslav wars and now sporadically appear elsewhere as mercenaries.
Those controlling the checkpoints argue they are needed to protect the local community - but many believe they are a serious threat to security and need to be reined in.
They seem to epitomise the breakdown of law and order that is now gripping Crimea - one such group preventing a delegation from the OSCE security organisation from entering the peninsula, firing warning shots to make their point.
It's a situation that Roman Borodin and his wife Tanya want to leave behind.
I visit their apartment in Sevastopol, now full of boxes. They're preparing to move from Crimea to Kiev, worried for the future of their four-year-old daughter, Masha.
They are ethnic Russians - but are a far cry from those here pushing Crimea into the arms of Moscow.
"We're leaving because the situation is so unpredictable", Mr Borodin says.
"We don't know what Putin will do next here. I fear it could be war. I don't want Crimea to become Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo. It's terrible."
Many among the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea have openly asked for Moscow's support here. They brand the revolutionaries of Kiev's Independence Square "fascists".
It's an allegation based on the far-right groups that supported the uprising that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych, as well as the nationalism of Western Ukraine during World War Two. History weighs heavy here.
But Roman tells me he doesn't want the support of Russia.
"I was in Moscow for 10 years so I know what the Russian Federation is like," he says. "People are poor there, the level of corruption is very high - and there's no freedom of speech."
Does he believe the allegations of Russians here that those from western Ukraine are out to harm them?
"It's a myth", he tells me. "We just spent a couple of months in the western city of Lviv. People there are extremely polite and kind. There is no violence to Russian people - I was speaking Russian with no problems. The fear comes from propaganda on television.
"When I went to the west, my mother told me not to say I was from Sevastopol - and she watches a lot of TV. People in western Ukraine are united to build a new country without corruption and without criminals. We are looking forward to helping them."
It is just one opinion among many here - but an indication that the Crimean government may have overestimated its support for next weekend's referendum on joining Russia.
The other side, though, is just as vocal.
In Sevastopol's main square, a concert was under way. "It's Crimea but deep down it's Russia," were the lyrics serenading a crowd with patriotic fervour.
For them, the referendum can't come early enough, a nation waiting to return to its spiritual heartland.
In reality Ukraine has already lost Crimea, now under the control of a rebel government, Russian troops, militias and mercenaries.
That's welcomed by many here.
But for others, a formal secession will push them to leave too, fearful of what might happen when Moscow calls the tune.