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Russia's Crimean enclave

Jacob Resneck, Sevastopol / glbFebruary 27, 2014

In Crimea, tensions are mounting as the Russian majority population threatens to secede and join Russia. Rallies have been held across the region, including in Sevastopol, which is home to Russia's Black Sea fleet.

Image: Vasiliy Batonov/AFP/Getty Images

This week thousands rallied in the military port city, waving Russian flags and chanting slogans against the people they describe as fascists and extreme nationalists who have taken over the central government in Kyiv.

A choir of the Russian navy's Black Sea fleet boomed patriotic Russian songs from a sound stage on a central square on Wednesday evening. Thousands gathered waving the red, white and blue tricolor banner of the Russian Federation.

This city has cultural and linguistic ties to Russia, and its navy has a lease on the port until at least 2042.

Worry and doubt

Earlier this week, the caretaker government installed to replace ousted President Viktor Yanukovych introduced a draft law that would strip the Russian language of any official status.

Standing with a group of friends holding the Russian flag aloft, 37-year-old Mikhail Nichik told DW he was worried about his children's future. He and his family speak, work and think in Russian, and the Ukrainian language is unfamiliar to them.

Demonstration in Sevastopol at night on Wednesday (27.02.2014)
Thousands of pro-Russia demonstrators rallied in Sevastopol on Wednesday (27.02.2014)Image: Jacob Resneck

"I am not able to express my thoughts clearly and articulate properly in Ukrainian," he said.

Nichik complains that the crisis in the country has forced people here to choose sides - and for many that choice has been easy.

"The Crimea and Sevastopol in the beginning were neutral. We didn't raise any flags. We didn't call for joining Russia when all this began. As a son of a Russian admiral, I think we should have raised our voices sooner," he said.

In this ethnic-Russian-dominated part of Ukraine, there is a lot of distrust of the rising power of Ukrainian nationalism. That's evident from many Second World War era slogans that evoke the universal struggle against fascism. There's an historical dimension to all this, as many Ukrainian nationalists sided with the Nazis during the 1940s.

The choir exits and the audience is treated to a concert by Vika Tsiganova, a 51-year-old singer who found fame during the Soviet period. She proclaims Sevastopol a city that's long resisted fascism and is famous for its rich maritime history.

Watching the show is 30-year-old Ina Yurchuk, a native of Sevastopol. She told DW that she's also worried about the city's future.

"I'm afraid of an illegitimate seizure of power by fascists and nationalists," she said. "I'm afraid our country could be divided. As we say in Ukraine, there are nationalists and pro-Russia groups, but we are actually one Ukraine."

And if she's forced to choose? Then she'd go with Russia, she says.

Women in black hold up portraits of relatives killed during the protests on the Maidan
Many protesters were killed in Kyiv, but in Sevastopol this is dismissed as 'misinformation'Image: DW/M. Bushuev

Intense polarization

Buses continue to arrive late into the evening, shuttling more demonstrators toting Russian flags.

One thing that's worrying is the different narratives being expressed. No one can agree on what's actually happening in the country. Earlier this month, security forces opened fire on demonstrators on Kyiv's Independence Square, known as the "Maidan," killing more than 70 people in clashes that also killed and injured policemen.

But demonstrator Elena Varinova is convinced that it was just the opposite.

"Nobody beat pregnant women on Maidan. Right-wing operatives shot at unarmed security forces. Yet Europe shows that pregnant students and kids are killed on Maidan," she says.

She dismisses mainstream reports - even those quoting official ministry sources - that confirmed protester deaths, describing them as misinformation.

"You journalists showed such nonsense; we were so ashamed for you that I can't even express it," she says. "Everybody here will avoid you because nobody believes you - I don't know whether you can understand this or not, but nobody believes you."

Such is the level of polarization in today's Ukraine. In Kyiv, celebrations ousting President Viktor Yanukovych have faded as the population begins splitting into different factions.

Russian navy ships at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol
Sevastopol is home to Russia's Black Sea fleetImage: picture-alliance/AP

Military alert

Meanwhile, Russia has put is forces on high alert and announced that it has mobilized some 150,000 troops, more than 800 tanks and 90 aircraft and 80 ships in case they're needed to secure its strategic base here in Sevastopol.

This has drawn a sharp rebuke from the United States.

"I don't think there should be any doubt whatsoever that any kind of military intervention that would violate the sovereign territorial integrity of Ukraine would be a huge, a grave mistake," US Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday in Washington.

But what is clear is that, were the Russian military to arrive, the majority of the residents of Sevastopol and Crimea would greet them as liberators rather than invaders.