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Pro-Russia Ukrainians want Moscow to ‘save them’

Photo: AFP

Scores of pro-Russian protesters rallied in Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula on Tuesday, bitterly denouncing politicians in Kiev who are trying to form a new pro-EU Ukraine government.


“Russia, save us!” they chanted.

The outburst of pro-Russian sentiment in the strategic peninsula on the Black Sea, home to a Russian naval base, came amid fears of economic collapse for Ukraine as the fractious foes of President Viktor Yanukovich failed to reach agreement on forming a new national government. The task of assigning new posts could not be completed before Thursday, they said.

While Ukraine’s politicians struggled to reorganise themselves in Kiev, a Russian flag had replaced the Ukrainian flag in front of the city council building in Sevastopol, 500 miles (800 kilometers) to the south of the capital. An armored personnel carrier and two trucks full of Russian troops made a rare appearance on the streets, vividly demonstrating Russian power in this port city where the Kremlin’s Black Sea Fleet is based.

Some called on Moscow to protect them from the movement that drove Yanukovich from the capital three days ago.

FRANCE 24’s Douglas Herbert, reporting from regional capital Simferopol, said Crimean lawmakers were set Wednesday to begin a session in parliament “to try to overthrow the local government because these are people they feel are too close to the new government in Kiev”.

“They don’t feel that they are protecting Russian interests here,” he said, adding that around 60 percent of the Crimean population is made up of ethnic Russians. “The Russians living here feel exposed and unprotected and want the Russians to come and help them.”

Deposed Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich’s whereabouts are unknown but he was reportedly last seen in the Crimea, a staunchly pro-Russian region the size of Massachusetts. Law enforcement agencies have issued an arrest warrant for him over the killing of 82 people, mainly protesters, last week in the bloodiest violence in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history.

His former chief of staff, Andriy Klyuyev, was wounded by gunfire Monday and hospitalized, spokesman Artem Petrenko told The Associated Press. It wasn’t clear where in Ukraine the shooting took place or what were the circumstances of the shooting.

Meanwhile, pro-Moscow protesters gathered for a third day in front of administrative buildings in Sevastopol and in other Crimean cities. Protests on Sunday numbered in the thousands.

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet

Russia, which has thousands of Black Sea Fleet seamen at its base, so far has refrained from any sharp moves in Ukraine’s political turmoil, but could be drawn into the fray if there are confrontations between the population in Crimea and the supporters of the new authorities.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in Washington that their countries oppose any attempt to partition or divide the former Soviet republic into pro-Western and pro-Russian territories.

A senior Russian lawmaker promised protesters that his government will protect its Russian-speaking compatriots in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine. “If lives and health of our compatriots are in danger, we won’t stay aside,” Leonid Slutsky told activists in Simferopol.

Crimea’s Russian heritage

Many in Russia have been dreaming about regaining the lush Crimean peninsula, which was conquered by Russia in the 18th century under Catherine the Great.

Crimea only became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia. The move was a mere formality until the 1991 Soviet collapse meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine.

Ethnic Russians make up the majority of Crimea’s population, and some, including retired navy officers and their families, have Russian citizenship. The peninsula’s nearly 2 million people includes 60 percent Russian speakers, as well as 12 percent who are Crimean Tatars, a minority group deported and persecuted in Soviet times, leaving them with little love for Russia.

Refat Chubarov, the head of the Tatar community, says the Tatars want new elections to the regional parliament and to remove any monuments to Soviet founder, Vladimir Lenin.

Kiev set to form new government

At the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev, lawmakers delayed the formation of a new government until Thursday, reflecting the political and economic challenges the country faces after Yanukovich went into hiding.

Turchinov, the parliament speaker, is now nominally in charge of this strategic country of 46 million whose ailing economy faces a possible default and whose loyalties are sharply torn between Europe and longtime ruler Russia.

The European Union’s top foreign policy official, Catherine Ashton, urged Ukraine’s new government to quickly work out an economic reform program so the West could consider financial aid to keep Ukraine from bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the Institute of International Finance, a Washington-based association of banks and financial companies, warned that Ukraine’s finances “are on the verge of collapse”.

Ukraine is battling to keep its currency, the hryvnia, from collapsing. Its acting finance minister says the country needs 25.5 billion euros to finance government needs this year and next.

Protests in Ukraine erupted after Yanukovich in November abruptly reject an agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union and instead sought a bailout loan from Moscow. They soon grew into a massive movement demanding an end to corruption and greater human rights.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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