Tensions rise in Ukraine’s pro-Russian Crimea amid secession fears

Posted at 7:17 AM, Feb 26, 2014

By Laura Smith-Spark. Phil Black and Frederik Pleitgen

KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) — Tensions simmered in Ukraine’s southern Crimea region Wednesday as pro-Russian demonstrators faced off with rival protesters in the city of Simferopol amid fears the region might seek to secede.

As the mood soured among the thousands rallying in front of the Crimean parliament building, some scuffles broke out.

One group waved Ukrainian flags and shouted “Crimea is not Russia,” while the other held Russian flags aloft and shouted “Crimea is Russia,” images broadcast by Crimean TV channel ATR showed. As the crowd became more agitated, a line of police moved in to divide the groups.

While those protesting are not calling for separation, the demonstrations signal the broad divide between those who support what is going on in Kiev, where the new government is leaning toward the West, and those who back Russia’s continued influence in Crimea and across Ukraine.

The speaker of the Crimean parliament, Volodimir Konstantinov, denied Wednesday that there were plans for the body to discuss “radical issues” such as the separation of Russia-oriented Crimea from Ukraine.

In a statement on the parliament website, Konstantinov dismissed “rumors” reported by local media, saying they were “a provocation aimed at discrediting and de-legitimizing the Crimean parliament.”

He also urged the Crimean people to remain calm and not be provoked, the statement said.

In the nearby port city of Sevastopol, where about 60% of the population is Russian and Moscow has a key naval base, residents told CNN they were angry that President Viktor Yanukovych has been forced out and fear that they will be oppressed by the country’s new leaders.

Small pro-Russian protests were taking place in the Black Sea city Wednesday.

A CNN team in the area encountered more than one pro-Russian militia checkpoint on the road from Sevastopol to Simferopol.

Yanukovych’s base of support is in eastern and southern Ukraine, where Russian culture and language predominate. In that region, most people are suspicious of the Europe-leaning views of their counterparts in western Ukraine, who were at the heart of the anti-government protests that filled central Kiev.

Many are struggling to get to grips with the rapid political upheaval that has unfolded in Ukraine in recent days, after the months of protests.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has accused Ukraine’s lawmakers of discriminating against ethnic Russians by excluding them from the reform process.

Talks on new government

The tensions come as Ukraine’s lawmakers scramble to put together a new unity government amid continued instability after Yanukovych’s ouster.

Vasil Gatsko, of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms (UDAR) party, said the three main opposition parties and smaller parties would meet Wednesday to discuss proposed members of the new government.

Once the parties agree, they will take a list of proposed new government members to Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan — which has been at the heart of the protest movement — for approval from the crowds gathered there.

Then the newly formed government will be officially voted in in Ukraine’s parliament Thursday morning, Gatsko said. The interim authorities had initially hoped to announce a new government Tuesday.

The lawmakers face the challenge of forming a body that genuinely represents of all the main political parties, despite their widely divergent views, and includes technical experts and some of the people’s heroes from the protests in Independence Square.

Presidential and local elections are due to be held on May 25.

One candidate has already been announced. Opposition leader and former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, of the UDAR party, will run for the presidency, his press secretary Oksana Zinovyeva said.

Elite riot police disbanded

Earlier Wednesday, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced that a riot police force used against anti-government protesters in Ukraine had been disbanded.

Demonstrators accused the elite Berkut force, deployed by the government of Yanukovych to quell recent protests, of using excessive force.

Avakov said on his Facebook page that he’d signed the order disbanding the force Tuesday.

But the new, pro-Russian mayor of Sevastopol, in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, said Tuesday night that he had secured funding to keep paying Berkut riot police in his city even after the force was disbanded.

The mayor, Alexej Chaliy, made the comments at a rally in Sevastopol. He was elected in an unofficial local vote, but the interim authorities in Kiev have said he is not a legitimate leader.

Last week, the bloody street clashes between demonstrators and security forces left more than 80 dead, the deadliest violence in the country since it gained independence when the Soviet Union collapsed 22 years ago.

Russia, which backed Yanukovych, contends that the President was driven out by an “armed mutiny” of extremists and terrorists. A warrant has been issued for his arrest, but his whereabouts remain unknown.

Diplomatic moves

While Yanukovych is on the run, the diplomatic wheels have been set in motion within the international community.

One key concern is Ukraine’s perilous financial position.

Interim Finance Minister Yury Kolobov proposed Monday that an international donor conference be held within two weeks. Ukraine, he said, will need $35 billion in foreign assistance by the end of 2015.

Russia had offered Ukraine a $15 billion loan and cut in natural gas prices in November, but that deal seems unlikely to remain on the table if Ukraine turns toward Europe.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague tweeted Wednesday: “Will discuss international financial support for #Ukraine at the IMF in Washington DC today.”

Ukrainian state news agency Ukrinform said the country has slashed its imports of natural gas from Russia in recent days.

Speaking in Washington on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said officials were “deeply engaged in trying to help this extraordinary transition that is taking place in Ukraine.”

In a joint news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Kerry said that Ukraine’s alliances should not necessarily determine what happens to its people — and that it was not a “zero sum” game.

“It is not a Russia or the United States or other choices,” he said. “This is about people of Ukraine and Ukrainians making their choice about their future. And we want to work with Russia, with other countries, with everybody available to make sure this is peaceful from this day forward.”

Yanukovych’s decision to scrap a European Union trade deal in favor of one with Russia prompted the protests, which began in November.

CNN’s Phil Black reported from Kiev, Frederik Pleitgen reported from Sevastopol and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. Journalist Azad Safanov in Kiev contributed to this report.

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