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Ukraine’s Longtime Divisions & NATO’s Eastern Expansion to Russian Border Lay Ground for Crimea Vote

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Tens of thousands took part in rival pro-unity and pro-Russian rallies in Ukraine on Sunday ahead of a planned secession referendum in Russian-occupied Crimea. Crimean residents are set to vote this Sunday on whether to break off from Ukraine and join Russia following the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych last month. In a show of support for Ukraine’s new government, the White House has announced President Obama will host newly installed Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk at the White House this week. We are joined from Crimea by freelance journalist Nicholas Clayton, who has covered the South Caucasus since 2009.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As tensions remain high in Ukraine, the White House has announced President Obama will meet with newly installed Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk at the White House Wednesday, just days before a referendum on secession by Crimea. Yatsenyuk became prime minister after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power. The United States and members of the European Union have rejected the proposed referendum in Crimea, saying it’s a violation of Ukraine’s constitution.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people in Ukraine took part in rival pro-unity and pro-Russian rallies. Speaking at a rally in Kiev, the prime minister, Yatsenyuk, pledged not to give a “single centimeter” of Ukrainian land to the Kremlin.

PRIME MINISTER ARSENIY YATSENYUK: [translated] We will defeat them, and we will win. Against Ukraine, against our peoples, against our families, against our European future, our neighboring country has launched a military aggression. Our answer to the Russian Federation is the only one: unity, confidence, dedication and the belief that we are going in the right direction. This is our land. Our parents and grandparents spilled their blood for this land. We will not give up a single centimeter of Ukrainian land. Let Russia and the Russian president know this.

AMY GOODMAN: Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended the vote in Crimea, saying it’s based on international law and aimed at guaranteeing the legitimate interests of the peninsula’s population. Crimea is a former Russian territory that’s home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet and has an ethnic Russian majority. The vote comes as the Russian military has tightened its control of the Crimean Peninsula. According to Ukraine’s border service, Russian forces now control 13 border bases as well as a key ferry connecting Crimea to Russia. Gunmen also reportedly fired warning shots on Saturday at observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, blocking them from entering Crimea.

We go now to the Crimea, to the city of Sevastopol, where we’re joined by freelance journalist Nicholas Clayton. He recently wrote a piece for Global Post called “Crimea’s Referendum Plans Are Dividing the Population.” He has covered the South Caucasus since 2009.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Why don’t you start off by just describing to us Crimea today? I think most people in the United States hardly know it exists.

NICHOLAS CLAYTON: Well, Crimea today is—you know, it was a part of Russia and the Russian Empire since the 18th century. And the city of Sevastopol was founded by Catherine the Great to be the site of the Russian Black Sea fleet. And so, therefore, that’s always been a part of Crimea’s history. And, in fact, here in Sevastopol, where it’s possibly probably the highest density of Russians in Ukraine, that military history is very much tied in with their identity.

However, Crimea has also long been the home of the Tatar ethnic group, which are a Turkic group. And, however, they were all forcibly removed during the Soviet Union, and some have come back and returned. But since the peninsula was gifted to Ukraine in 1954, when both Ukraine and Russia were Soviet republics, by Ukrainian-born Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, since then, the population has mixed quite a bit more, and there is—about 10 to 15 percent of the population is Ukrainian.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the significance of this vote next weekend, Nicholas.

NICHOLAS CLAYTON: Well, the vote is clearly what everybody is waiting for. There have been rising tensions, but, in many ways, everyone is waiting until the referendum to see what will really happen. The fact is that the referendum leaves basically no possibility for Crimea to remain a part of Ukraine. The two questions on the referendum are, one, “Do you support Crimea becoming a part of the Russian Federation?” and two, “Do support the restoration of the 1992 Crimean constitution?” And the last form of that constitution, which was later abandoned after negotiations with Kiev, but in that last—in its last form, it described Crimea as an independent country, and so, therefore, if that constitution were to be restored, it’s likely that the Crimean government would interpret that as meaning that Crimea would then be an independent country, one that might then later be absorbed by Russia, or it could become a—some sort of semi-independent protectorate, similar to what has occurred with Georgia’s breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that continue on recognized as independent by Russia and only a few of Russia’s allies, but are basically dependent upon Russian aid and support.

AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, Ukraine’s acting foreign minister in the upcoming—said that the upcoming referendum in Crimea is illegitimate.

ANDRII DESHCHYTSIA: We consider this referendum and the decision illegal, and there is no other way how to protest but to say to the international community that the results will be not valid. And it’s a part of the democratic principles, if the elections—or referendum, at this moment—is not fair, free and fair, then not only Ukraine, but the international community will not recognize it.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Nicholas, if you could describe the views of the people in Crimea around this referendum, and also the presence of the Soviet—of the Russian bases?

NICHOLAS CLAYTON: Well, the breadth of opinion here is actually much wider than I think has been discussed in most media. Although Crimea is majority ethnic Russian, that’s not necessarily a 100 percent indicator of where their loyalties lie. Although the pro-Russian crowd has made its voice the loudest in Crimea, and there’s been several rallies supporting the unity with Russia, I’ve also spoken with several ethnic Russians that feel that—either they feel like that they are a part of Ukraine and that their ethnicity and the fact that they speak Russian, not Ukrainian, doesn’t necessarily invalidate their Ukrainian identity, and also many others that said that really the root causes of the discontent, overall, with Kiev come from the fact that they’ve largely been dictated to from Kiev, from a faraway government that operates in a different language from them, and they said that, you know, “Basically, our problem is that we’re a small territory that’s a part of a bigger country. If we become, you know, part of Russia, we’ll be a small part of an even bigger country.” And so, there really is a range of opinions.

The Tatar minority, which represent about 25 percent of the population of Crimea, they have been very worried. They’ve organized their own self-defense groups, and their autonomous Parliament has called on Crimean residents to boycott the referendum. And given their history of being deported forcibly by the Soviet Union, they are very suspicious of Moscow’s motives, and also they’re very fearful of what might happen to their rights should the Crimea once again become a Russian territory.

AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov talked about the crisis in Ukraine.

SERGEY LAVROV: [translated] They are trying to represent us as a conflicting side, which we are not. This conflict is of an inner Ukrainian nature, inspired from outside and not from our side. The temporary government, as you’ve called it, is not independent. Unfortunately, it depends on radical nationalists who took power in an armed coup.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicholas Clayton, if you could respond to Lavrov and also talk about the presence of the Russian bases?

NICHOLAS CLAYTON: Well, that has been the line that’s come out of the Russian media for a long time here, and it’s had its desired effect. Many people here believe that there is a new fascist government in Kiev that is coming to exterminate ethnic Russians in Crimea. And that has very much been—it’s what we continue to hear here in Crimea as to why they support the referendum, why they need Russian support, why they want to separate from Kiev.

And in terms of the troops in these standoffs, there’s been an ongoing war of nerves very much between these unmarked military units—and there’s building evidence that they are indeed Russian, there’s little doubt that they are Russian forces here—and Ukrainian troops that continue to be surrounded in various bases around the country. For the most part, after initial standoffs, there were agreements that were made between the Ukrainian and Russian sides, in that Russians would sometimes take certain strategic parts of the base and that would be their zone of interest, while the Ukrainians would remain in their parts. There were ultimatums that had been made trying to get the Ukrainians to surrender, and so far none have, at least not in significant numbers. And—but, however, there was an attack on Friday wherein a mix of Russian regular soldiers, it appears, and these volunteer self-defense forces attacked a Ukrainian base south of Sevastopol and, again, broke through the gates and tried to force the Ukrainians to surrender, and they did not do so. And they eventually—and the pro-Russian forces eventually withdrew. However, I spoke with some Ukrainian soldiers over the weekend, and they say now, basically, since that particular event, they believe that the Russians could violate the agreements and come storming in at any moment. And so, the situation remains very tense.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about NATO and the Russians’ attitude toward NATO? The U.S. support, for example, for the independence of Kosovo, but then saying that Crimea is unconstitutional according to the Ukraine constitution.

NICHOLAS CLAYTON: Well, this whole episode has very much revived the debate between self-determination versus state sovereignty. And very much, there are, as you mentioned, links going back—in terms of Russia’s view of this—going back to 1999. You know, in the '90s, there was a bit of a détente between NATO and Russia under Yeltsin and Clinton; however, that opinion has changed in the Russian political elite, particularly during the ’90s, as they saw what they interpreted as increasingly aggressive behavior on NATO's side. NATO agreed not to expand beyond a certain point into Eastern Europe, and they continued moving. And particularly around the Kosovo incident, Russia felt like it deserved, you know, a seat at the table in negotiations over what the international response was going to be and how there would be reconciliation in the end, and it felt like it was—its assurances and its promises from the West were not respected there.

And since then, there’s been a lot of analysts saying that they feel that these moves by the Kremlin are irrational and somehow that Putin has gone crazy. But in fact, Putin has always been a very calculated and opportunistic person, not—I’m not vouching necessarily for any of his policies, but in Crimea, he has acted in a way that really represents the way he sees the world order, in which many Russians feel that the actual—that the international organizations, international institutions, like the U.N., like the OSCE, that purport to build these processes by which the—you know, these types of disputes can be resolved, all of them are slanted towards Western interests. And Putin, therefore, sees that not only is it unlikely to get a favorable result by going through the official, normal international channels, but also that it—you know, that Putin believes very much that the West is being hypocritical itself, that when the West wants to attack a country or get militarily involved in the affairs of another country, they oftentimes do that action without consulting the U.N., without going through any of those structures, as well. And so, this very much is a part of Putin’s worldview, that going through the normal processes and the international community insisting that Russia go through the normal processes is a way of sidelining it, a way of keeping Russia from getting what it wants. And so, therefore, Putin is content to do things his way.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of the new Ukrainian prime minister, Yatsenyuk, coming to meet with President Obama on Wednesday, which is a few days before the referendum in Crimea?

NICHOLAS CLAYTON: Well, it will be very important—well, two things will be very important here. I think many people have forgotten that much of what spurred this crisis, going back before the protests even in Kiev, was the fact that Ukraine is very much on the verge of bankruptcy. And its economic situation has only worsened after the protests. Ukraine seriously needs significant financial support in order to stay afloat. Not only that, but if Russia either cuts gas through Ukraine or increases its prices, that will have a serious detrimental effect on the Ukrainian economy and the ability of this new government to remain stable throughout this crisis.

But I think also, similarly important is the guidance that Western partners can give to Ukraine. Another part of the trigger of all of this, and this political crisis that has erupted now between the east and west, is very much a part of a continuing political crisis that has existed within Ukraine for—basically since independence. If you look at political maps of how the national elections have gone, they’re very—there are historic political divides between the east and west. And no government, basically, since independence, has been able to really rule through consensus. In 2004, you had the Orange Revolution, which brought about a pro-Western, Ukrainian-speaking, ethnic Ukrainian government that pushed the country towards NATO, even though the majority of the country was not enthusiastic about joining NATO, but it also imposed Ukrainian as the national language for all administrative purposes, which is something that has really antagonized the Russian-speaking east. And meanwhile—and this is something that has also come up recently, that there—when Yanukovych, from the Russian-speaking east, took power in 2010, he then made Russian an official language alongside Ukrainian, and that law was—the new Parliament voted to annul that law, giving Russian the official status, shortly after the new government took place—took power. And that is something that many Russians talk about here in the east as being a very provocative measure. Although the new Ukrainian president vetoed the law, it still was a sign that the new government really needs to be encouraged to take steps to build a policy that does build consensus with both sides, bringing in politicians from the east into the government so that these eastern regions feel that they are adequately represented in the government and there is not this—there’s no longer this sense of, you know, one side takes power and strips rights from the other side, and vice versa.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicholas Clayton, I want to thank you for being with us, freelance journalist, speaking to us from Crimea. We will link to your piece at Global Post called “Crimea’s Referendum Plans Are Dividing the Population.” This is Democracy Now! When we come back, America’s War Workers. Stay with us.

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