Ukraine’s Unrest Causes Russian Worries For Black Sea Fleet, “Violence On The Ground”

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An ethnic Russian Ukrainian holds a Russian flag as Crimean Tatars rally near the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol February 26, 2014. (Reuters / Baz Ratner).
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An ethnic Russian Ukrainian holds a Russian flag as Crimean Tatars rally near the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol February 26, 2014. (Reuters / Baz Ratner)
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Crimea’s ethnic composition and Western policy towards Ukraine could create a Kosovo-like scenario where the majority of Russian speaking residents would claim independence which could lead to violence on the ground, Oxford historian Mark Almond told RT.

RT: If the EU and the US are concerned about  doing what people on the Maidan want, why are they ignoring what  people in Crimea want?

Mark Almond: Well one would have thought so if  you’re going to listen to the crowd on the street on the square  and there are many squares where there’re crowds including  Simferopol and Sevastopol. The basic problem of course is what  the Americans, particularly the lead military power in NATO want,  is to eventually ease the Russian navy out of its base, out of  its lease in Sevastopol in the Crimea. And so of course the fact  that the great majority of people in Crimea not only 60 per cent  that are actually Russian but many of the rest who speak Russian  as their everyday language is something that the EU and NATO  countries want to ignore. Of course if you have any kind of push  to create a crisis, I’m afraid our democratic basis as in Kosovo  where the great majority, where the great majority of Albanians  wanted to be independent from Serbia, you would create a Kosovo  crisis in Crimea. But of course strangely enough Washington and  Brussels suddenly aren’t terribly interested in this. I myself  think that creating a crisis is not a good idea, but nonetheless  they seem to be bent on pushing to increase tension between  people on the Peninsula. And of course there is a risk of  violence against either ethnic Russians, civilians that are there  or against the sailors and soldiers on the base.

Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, 1992

A Russian Black Sea fleet has been stationed in Sevastopol, Ukraine, since the late 18th Century. The lease was due to run out in 2017, but Ukraine has extended it to 2042 in return for cheap Russian gas. BBC Photo from 2010

RT: The Crimean Tatars have long been  calling for the establishment of their own autonomy, why are they  now siding with the pro-EU crowds in Kiev?

MA: I think this is a very incoherent position.  The Tatars historically are seen as the traditional native  inhabitants of the Crimea. Catherine the Great’s Russia took over  250 years ago and then of course Khrushchev, the communist  dictator gave Crimea to Ukraine only 60 years ago. The Tatars  feel that they have been neglected and eventually many of them  who have been forced out of their territory have come back. But I  think it is a great mistake to think that they are the supporters  of the Ukrainian nationalism. My experience in the Crimea is that  most Tatars speak Russian as their everyday language and of  course they do learn Tatar as well. And they don’t have any great  sympathy for Ukrainian nationalism and now of course the  transitional government in Kiev has abolished the language  rights, not only Russian but of Tatars and Hungarians in the  West. So again we have this paradox. The EU is a great believer  of minority rights, except when these minorities aren’t fully  paid up supporters of its crowd on the streets of central Kiev.  And I think again many Tatars in fact walked to the  demonstration, I don’t think that we should overate the fact that  a group of people, many of them have been beneficiaries of George  Soros’s language schools and scholarships. We should not be  overrating how many of the many thousands of Tatars who live in  Crimea necessarily want trouble. I think this is an exaggeration.

Pro-Ukrainian activists rally in front of the Crimean parliament in Semfiropol on February 26, 2014. (AFP Photo / Vasiliy Batanov) .
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Pro-Ukrainian activists rally in front of the Crimean parliament in Semfiropol on February 26, 2014. (AFP Photo / Vasiliy Batanov)

RT: At the start of the rally in Crimea, we  saw the Tatars vastly outnumbering the ethnic Russian crowd. Does  that reflect the real numbers among these ethnic groups  there?

MA: No, of course what we see, actually what we  saw on Maidan Square in Kiev, strangely enough the spontaneous  demonstrations of pro-westerners is much better organized, funded  when you bring in Brussels and lorry loads of people. But of  course once this crowd assembled, I’m afraid it drew out the  majority of the local population who are Russians, and this is  very dangerous. It seems to me that the Americans and the people  in the Soros foundation who support these local nationalist  groups are playing with fire. Because if you begin to send out a  relatively small crowd of people to ban things that frighten the  majority of people in the first place. It is very dangerous just  like it would be if suddenly a lot of Russians appeared in Lvov,  in Western Ukraine and started saying “Shouldn’t we all be part  of Russia”. It would be very provocative and very dangerous. But  it seems to me that the West is not totally concerned about this  danger and that I think could lead to another Crimean War  exploding in our faces 160 years after the last one

RT: How did these ethnic groups end up in  Crimea anyway?

MA: As I’ve said about 250 years ago, Crimea was  ruled by the Muslim Tatar Khans who were subjects of the Ottoman  Empire. Catherine the Great of Russia conquered what we now call  the Ukraine and the Crimea. Then with the WWI, the Russian  Revolution tool place and the anti-communists were driven out of  Crimea and most of Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union. When  Hitler came in 1941, he eventually captured Sevastopol in Crimea.  But when the Nazis were forced to withdraw, Stalin took the view  that the ethnic Tatars were being anti-Russian, anti-Soviet have  collaborated with the Nazis. I think this is a travesty of the  behavior of most those Tatars, although ironically now we have  Germans newspapers saying, how wonderful the Tatars are to be  collaborating with the united Europe. Leave that aside, huge  numbers of Tatars were deported to Central Asia. Eventually in  the Gorbachev period 30 years ago they were allowed to return, to  come back to the Crimea. Sadly in the meantime all sorts of other  people, who lived there themselves of course, could be Russians  for generations, or people who in the Soviet period have moved  in, are living where they’re used to live.

Pro-Ukrainian activists hold placards reading "Crimea+Ukraine is love" during a rally in front of the Crimean parliament in Semfiropol on February 26, 2014. (AFP Photo / Vasiliy Batanov) .
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Pro-Ukrainian activists hold placards reading “Crimea+Ukraine is love” during a rally in front of the Crimean parliament in Semfiropol on February 26, 2014. (AFP Photo / Vasiliy Batanov)

So the tragedy for many of the Tatars is that they have left  where they have grown up in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, come back  to the Crimea and find nowhere to live, live in poverty and I’m  afraid to say some of whom may be agitatedbecause of the living  rate poverty. People also in the Western Ukraine do when somebody  comes and says, you could have a career, here is a little bit of  money to set up an activist NGO group and so on – who would not  take it if you are destitute. And that I think is the danger. We  have in fact an under employed population who can be agitated.

RT: So what do you think will happen next in  Crimea?

MA: Well Crimea which is such a beautiful place  should be the center of interaction between the Russian cultures,  Chekov lived there, of Tatar culture and the playground on the  seashore. The danger is if you allow people to be obsessed that  one nation has to dominate, and in this case a very small number  of Ukrainians who live in Crimea are being used by the great  majority of the Ukrainians who live outside the Peninsula and by  the West because it wants to get rid of the Russian naval base,  to be a battering ram. And I think this is very dangerous.  Ideally Crimea would be a sunny playground for everybody to  enjoy. Sadly, I think people from a long way away are prepared to  play with fire to drive the naval base out. But if we remember  what happened in 1850s, we can discover that the Crimean conflict  can turn out to drag in other people.

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