27 Feb 2014

Tensions rise as protesters storm Crimean state parliament

I’ve never heard the word “fascist” bandied around quite so liberally as I have over the last few days in Crimea.

To the Russian speaking demonstrators here the new authorities in Kiev are fascists, the European Union is fascist, western journalists are fascists.

Undoubtedly the men who stormed into the Crimean state parliament in Simferopol in the early hours of this morning and raised the Russian flag are acting to resist fascism.

People in Ukraine have long memories – it’s as if we’re in 1944, not 2014. Today’s politics is rooted in World War ll when some Ukrainian nationalists in the west of the country collaborated with the Nazis. Easterners, especially those in Crimea, glory in their fathers’ and mothers’ heroic resistance to Nazism.

In Sevastopol, the eternal flame burns in front of a monument to what they still, like the Soviets, call “The Great Patriotic War”.

It’s dedicated to those who defended Sevastopol during 250 days of German occupation in 1941 and 1942. One huge granite wall is inscribed with the names of 54 “Heroes of the Soviet Union.”

“We have different heroes from people in the west,” said a young woman.

In the western city of Lviv, on Ukraine’s border with Poland, which I visited last week, some people follow the Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera. He briefly cooperated with the Germans as they occupied Ukraine after Operation Barbarossa in 1941. The Nazis then arrested and imprisoned him,  but no matter – to many in the east he, and all who admire him, are fascists.

There were other Ukrainian nationalists who collaborated with the Nazis and committed atrocities. Just as there were Ukrainians in the east who cooperated with Stalin who was responsible for famine, the ethnic cleansing of Crimean Tatars and other mass crimes. Ukraine’s history is brutal beyond words.

For decades Russian propaganda has equated Ukrainian nationalism with fascism, but some of those involved in the protests that brought down the government of Viktor Yanukovich play into that stereotype.

One night in Lviv we came across a unit of young men marching down the street allegedly keeping law and order in the absence of the police. Their leader, Yuri, who was all of 17, wore military fatigues that he had bought year ago, waiting for the suitable moment to parade them.

He and his group were from the Right Sector, a far right group that has been associated with anti-Semitism as well as nationalism. Right Sector vigilantes fought the Berkut riot police in Kiev’s Maidan Square last week and have been embraced by some in the new government.

This is not simply a struggle between western Ukrainians who long for European-style democracy, and renegades from the east longing for the Communist past.

In Crimea, which only became part of Ukraine in 1954, most people see Russia as their cultural, linguistic and political motherland. No wonder they grew angry when one of the first acts of the new government in Kiev was to declare Ukrainian as the country’s sole official language, downgrading Russian.

The Russian flag flying on the roof of the Crimean parliament is a challenge to the new government in Kiev which should be sworn in today.

They have to reassure people in Crimea that their wishes will be taken into account.

But the rhetoric is high on both sides, and President Putin’s decision to put his military on alert has upped the ante.

The stand off at the regional parliament in Simferopol can only be ended through negotiation – any attempt to use force of arms would surely pitch Ukraine into a dangerous conflict.

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