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Crisis in Crimea sharply divides small town

  • Article by: TIM SULLIVAN
  • Associated Press
  • March 3, 2014 - 5:30 PM

NOVO-OZERNE, Ukraine — For years, the little Crimean town was closed off from the rest of the world, a secretive community, at the edge of a key Soviet naval base, sealed by roadblocks and armed guards.

Today, to get to Novo-Ozerne, you just follow a pitted two-lane road far into the Crimean countryside, past collective farms abandoned decades ago and villages where it's hard to see any life, even at midday.

There's not much in town anymore, just the occasional ship that has sailed up the Black Sea inlet to this isolated spot, a handful of crumbling navy buildings, and an armory ringed by barbed wire.

But the Russians want it.

And the little forgotten town is now sharply divided, torn between those who welcomed the arrival here over the weekend of dozens of Russian soldiers wearing unmarked uniforms, and those who back the Ukrainians who are refusing to surrender their weapons.

"We know who they are and we see (what they are doing) as terrorism," said Sergei Reshetnik, a local businessman furious over the Russians' arrival. "We just want to live quietly."

The standoff in Novo-Ozerne between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers is a scene playing out across Crimea, days after Moscow effectively seized political power across the strategic Black Sea peninsula, establishing a pro-Russian regional government backed up by hundreds — perhaps thousands — of soldiers. The seizure of power came after months of street demonstrations in the capital, Kiev, which forced out Ukraine's president, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. The new government has taken a sharp turn away from Moscow, and is eager to form closer ties to the European Union.

But if Russia expected the Ukrainian military to go easily, handing over its weapons as soon as it was asked, things turned out far more complicated. Instead, military installations across Crimea — many of them surrounded or taken over by Russian forces — have refused to surrender, raising the tension and leading to fears of all-out combat. Ukraine's new government has ordered the bases to remain loyal to Kiev.

In Novo-Ozerne, the standoff had turned into an impasse by Monday afternoon. After the initial confrontation, the Russians had moved most of their forces away from the base and into an abandoned building, leaving about a dozen heavily armed soldiers in hurriedly built trenches outside the armory.

The commanders have talked a few times, trying to avoid the chance of accidental bloodshed, and things often looked fairly normal, with soldiers, their wives and girlfriends passing easily in and out of the main Ukrainian base.

Outside the armory, members of pro-Russian self-defense groups — which have often worked closely with the Russian military — set up a perimeter to search vehicles leaving the compound.

They were thrilled at the Russians' arrival.

To them, what happened in Kiev was a coup staged by anti-Russian fascists who they fear will punish the ethnic Russians who dominate this part of Ukraine. So, they said, they were making sure no weapons made it out of the armory.

"We don't want to become another Yugoslavia here," said Alexei Maslyukov, a local resident who organized the checkpoint, barely 50 feet (15 meters) from where masked Russians watched with automatic weapons.

In many ways, what happened in this town is unusual. Crimea was a crown jewel of the czarist and Soviet empires, and ethnic Russians moved here in droves over the years. After the fall of the Soviet Union and Ukraine's independence, many Crimeans continued to see themselves as more Russian than Ukrainian.

By all appearances, most Crimeans have welcomed the Russian military, and given only scattered support to the Ukrainian soldiers.

But this town, which outwardly is just another vision of post-Soviet decay, with its identical concrete-block apartments and empty storefronts, is shockingly diverse. There are Russians and Tatars, the Turkic people who once dominated Crimea. There are Azeris, Gypsies and Jews. Few of these people have any loyalty to Moscow.

The village, which once numbered more than 12,000, now has fewer than half that many people. The Soviets took most of their ships and equipment with them at independence, leaving the naval installations little more than piles of concrete and decades-old weaponry.

"Whatever they didn't want, that's what they left here," said Reshetnik, the local businessman.

The town now depends on summer tourists for much of its income. The population almost doubles again during the key summer tourist months, with thousands attracted by the chance of a cheap holiday along the water.

Many fear the standoff could scare away the travelers.

"The tourist season will be totally screwed," grumbled Reshetnik. "People are already broke."

Dozens of local residents turned out early Monday to demonstrate their support for the Ukrainians, with many shouting angrily at Russian soldiers to leave the base's main gate. And, in fact, the Russians did soon withdraw.

That fact made the base's acting commander smile.

"Talking to them, I know that they are ready to come here and stand as defense between us and the Russians," said Vadim Filipenko.

His forces are clearly outgunned. The Ukrainian soldiers are ready for an attack, standing at the main gate with their fingers just off the triggers of their AK-47s.

But the armored vehicle parked behind them, with its spray-painted tires and splotches of rust, appears to have been used for decoration until just a few days ago.

© 2014 Star Tribune