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Pro-Russian Separatism Rises In Crimea As Ukraine's Crisis Unfolds

Crimean parliament deputy and pro-Russian separatist Sergei Shuvainikov in his office in Simferopol.
Crimean parliament deputy and pro-Russian separatist Sergei Shuvainikov in his office in Simferopol.
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine -- From the dingy basement of a decaying apartment block on the outskirts of Simferopol, Crimean parliament deputy Sergei Shuvainikov is leading the fight to defend the ethnic Russians of this strategic Black Sea peninsula.

In an office festooned with banners showing a map of Crimea overlaid with a World War II medal featuring the communist hammer and sickle and the slogan "In union with Russia," the voluble Shuvainikov spills out a litany of alleged assaults on the Russian language and Russian culture in Ukraine.

"This is the result of a political position to deny Russians, for whom the language is the main identifier of their Russian ethnicity, of their Russian nation, Russian people," he says. "To deny them the right to remind children and young people that they are Russians. It is in fact the destruction of Russian nationality, of the concept of the Russian people of Ukraine."

The piles of megaphones and rolled up banners in the corner of Shuvainikov's self-proclaimed "bunker" attest to the stepped-up activity of the organizations he heads, the Congress of Russian Communities and the Russian Front. Since the political crisis erupted in Kyiv in November, his organizations have repeatedly held demonstrations in Simferopol and elsewhere, burning EU flags and blaming U.S. and NATO interference for Ukraine's time of troubles.

The people of Crimea are watching with nervous expectation as the political and economic crisis in Ukraine drags on.

Crimea is Ukraine's only region where ethnic Russians are a majority, comprising approximately 60 percent of its population of 2 million. From the 18th century until just 60 years ago on February 19, the peninsula was part of Russia. And as Ukraine's turmoil shakes the region's ethnic and religious fault lines, there is increasing talk that perhaps it should be again.

Staying In Moscow's Orbit

Although it is illegal to openly advocate separatism in Ukraine, many pro-Russian organizations are calling for "bolstering Crimea's autonomy" in the event the government of President Viktor Yanukovych strikes some compromise agreement with what they call the "fascist" opposition.

The goal of the pro-Russian groups is to keep Ukraine in Moscow's orbit and prevent its integration with Europe. But to drum up support for their efforts, they are openly manipulating tensions and fears between Orthodox Russians and Muslim Crimean Tatars, who make up about 12 percent of the population. Hundreds of thousands of Tatars have returned to their Crimean homeland after being deported by Soviet authorities during World War II.

About 40 kilometers northeast of Shuvainikov's Simferopol bunker is the dusty, crumbling town of Belogorsk. It's hard to guess it was once a lively trading center of the Silk Road with the Tatar name Karasubazar. Today its population of some 18,000 is nearly evenly divided between Russians, Ukrainians, and Tatars.

The town's mayor, Albert Kangiyev, an ethnic Tatar and a member of President Yanukovych's Party of Regions, says his town is peaceful and relations among different groups are good. But he worries about the potential for outside forces to disrupt this fragile harmony.

"This is a multiethnic city," Kangiyev says. "Today the percentage of formerly deported citizens in our city is more than 30 percent -- that is, a quite significant number. And lighting a match -- in a manner of speaking -- in our city would be very easy."

In November, Shuvainikov's Congress of Russian Communities held a march through downtown Belogorsk to mark the Russian holiday of National Unity Day. A few dozen participants listened to speeches glorifying the Tsarist-era conquering of Crimea and adopted a resolution claiming "today Russians are again in a state of feudal fragmentation, spiritual decline, and despondency. Our rights to our history, our culture, our Orthodox faith, and the Russian language are being brazenly restricted. More and more often we see and hear insulting attacks aimed at Russia and the Russian people."

PHOTO GALLERY: Ukraine's Ethnically Divided Crimea Region

Mayor Kangiyev's fears about the potential for instability seem well-founded. About 100 kilometers to the south, in the coastal resort of Yalta, a middle-aged Russian who asked to be identified only as Irina expressed frustration about the Crimean Tatars, who were deported from the peninsula by Stalin in 1944 and have been returning in large numbers since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"The Tatars.... Supposed Tatars who were repressed and deported," she says. "Some sort of Uzbeks came back who had nothing at all to do with any of that, you understand. 'I'm a Tatar [they say]. I was repressed! Give me some land!' They buy some land and then resell it at a huge profit. They end up with a lot of money from nothing. Some sort of pathetic Uzbek -- 'I'm a Tatar.' He comes and says, 'Gimme.' You see how it is."

The Congress of Russian Communities and Russian Front are far from the only or the most radical pro-Russian organizations that have been activated in Crimea. On February 12, in a stuffy press center funded by the U.S. Embassy in the Simferopol labor-union building, representatives of nearly two dozen pro-Russian organizations gathered to discuss the plight of Crimea's ethnic Russians.

The meeting was hosted via Skype by Yury Meshkov, a pro-Russian separatist who served as Crimea's president in 1994-95. Meshkov was deported from Ukraine for his separatist activities in 2011 and now lives in Moscow.

Participants in the roundtable spoke with an impassioned mixture of fear and anger, seasoned richly with nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Viktor Golovin, representing the Committee to Support Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, captured the mood by saying: "We are not urging a war. We are calling for what is ours. The only thing we are urging is that no one tries to stop us from returning to the big Russian world. Don't stop us from returning home."

A featured speaker of the roundtable and a rising star of the pro-Russian movement in Crimea is Valery Podyachy, head of a group called the Popular Front. The Popular Front's logo shows the flags of Russia and the Russian Navy crossed against the silhouette of the Simferopol monument to the Russian conquest of Crimea in 1783.

Skirting open calls for separatism, the affable and energetic Podyachy is pushing for Kyiv to lease the entire peninsula to Russia in exchange for the cancelation of Ukraine's debts to Moscow. With a wry smile, he compares this scenario to the U.S. lease of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Asked what would become of Crimea after the proposed lease expires, Podyachy has a quick answer.

"After 99 years, I don't think Ukraine will last that long as an independent country," he says. "Russia will exist because Russia is after all a leading global player on a par with the United States, China, and the European Union. So it is obvious that Russia will exist. But will Ukraine exist...? That's why, in principle, this solution would satisfy everyone."

But such a solution -- or any solution that would see Crimea move more tightly into Moscow's orbit -- is unlikely to satisfy the Crimean Tatar community.

Stop Maidan

Last year, Refat Chubarov was elected head of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar self-government body. He says that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has exploited regional tensions as a way of maintaining its influence in the post-Soviet space.

As the Soviet Union fell apart "Moscow was frantically looking for various tools to hold on to the [Soviet] territories," he says. "Nagorno-Karabakh -- Armenia and Azerbaijan; Transdniester -- Moldova; provocations in Tbilisi -- Georgia; attempts involving Interfront, the Popular Front, in the Baltic states.... The center, Moscow, viewed Crimea as one of these sort of hooks by means of which it could hold on to all of Ukraine."

The pro-Russian organizations deny they have ties to Moscow. However, Russia's presence in the region is felt everywhere. The Russian Consulate in Simferopol has been aggressively issuing Russian passports to ethnic Russian Crimeans, a policy that has provoked protests from Kyiv. The Russian state agency for cooperation with countries from the Commonwealth of Independent States countries operates out of a huge villa in the center of the capital.

Last week, Russian presidential adviser and leading Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov made an under-the-radar trip to Crimea, meeting behind closed doors with Crimean Prime Minister Anatoly Mogilev, Crimean parliament speaker Vladimir Konstantinov, and Sevastopol Governor Vladimir Yatsuboi. It was also announced that Konstantinov will travel to Moscow on February 20 for talks with Russian Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin.

The roads of Crimea are blanketed by thousands of billboards installed by a mysterious, lavishly funded nongovernmental organization called Stop Maidan. The billboards assert that Crimea is "for stability" and says no to "extremism" and "foreign interference." Stop Maidan has also sent hundreds of pro-government demonstrators to Kyiv, urging Yanukovych to uncompromisingly quash the protests.

WATCH: Crimean Stop Maidan protesters rally in Kyiv.

Chubarov says that, although the Ukrainian government's policies have produced frustrations among Tatars and raised tensions among the region's ethnic groups, the local situation would be stable if not for provocations from outside of Crimea.

"There are no internal reasons for the sharp activation [of pro-Russian groups]," he says. "But there is the necessary background that can be aggravated if from the outside, -- from outside [Crimea], -- there are very strong, targeted manipulations. And we always see this when relations between Moscow and Kyiv become complicated."

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service correspondent Volodymyr Prytula contributed to this report

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