SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Tensions flared in the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea Wednesday as several thousand demonstrators pushing for a referendum on joining Russia clashed with members of the Tatar ethnic minority.
Flag-waving protesters from both sides faced off outside of the local parliament building in Simferopol, the regional capital. Lawmakers canceled an emergency session that had been called to discuss whether to support the plebiscite, which assembly spokeswoman Lyudmila Mokhova said would have been symbolic, rather than binding.
Divisions between the Ukrainian-speaking west and center and the pro-Russia east and south are straining the country’s unity after the nation’s bloodiest week since World War II toppled Viktor Yanukovych’s Kremlin-backed regime. While the European Union has urged leaders to preserve Ukraine’s integrity, Crimea, part of Russia until 1954 and home to its Black Sea fleet, has become the focus of ethnic tension.
“This is what’s happening under the guise of protecting compatriots who allegedly are being threatened,” said Yuriy Yakymenko, the head of political research at the Kiev-based Razumkov Center. “This isn’t an issue for Crimean society but for Crimean politicians. Most of the Crimean population don’t support this scenario.”
By late afternoon, the pro-Ukrainians left the area, leaving only pro-Russian groups, who represent the autonomous region’s majority ethnic group and have been camped out in the area since Tuesday. More than 7,000 people rallied, according to Ukraine’s channel TV5 report.
“The Russians in Crimea are treated as third-class citizens in Ukraine,” said Alla Anichka, a 56-year-old retiree. “We want to be part of Russia, that is where our roots lie.
Tatars returned to their native land after Russian leader Josef Stalin deported them under accusations of Nazi collaboration. The protesters Wednesday waved Ukrainian and Crimean flags, chanting “Crimea is not Russia.” They demanded the dismissal of the Crimean government and new local parliamentary elections.
“They almost wiped us out,” said Rustem Mustafayev, a 55- year-old agricultural worker whose father was deported from Crimea at the age of seven. “There are few of us left now. This is our homeland. We have nowhere else to go.”
Forty-nine of the 100 lawmakers in parliament showed up to the emergency session, prompting local parliamentary speaker Vladimir Konstantinov to cancel the meeting.
The situation quickly grew tense as about a dozen Crimean Tatars wielding sticks broke into the parliament building from a side door and were met by ranks of helmeted riot police.
Refat Chubarov, the head of the Council of the Crimean Tatar People, rushed out of the building, saying ” I’m going to calm things down.”
Konstantinov said he is committed to “the territorial unity” of Ukraine, but criticized the new authorities in Kiev for threatening the autonomous status of Crimea by passing a law on the use of Ukrainian.
“Today, on behalf of the Crimean people, the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea urges those who call themselves the legitimate government to respect powers of the autonomous Republic of Crimea,” Konstantinov said. “Our aim is to preserve peace and inter-ethnic harmony in Crimea and not to allow any bloodshed.”
The Tatar minority has supported the anti-Yanukovych protests that erupted in November after the ex-president snubbed a trade agreement with the EU in exchange for a $15 billion bailout from Russia.
Meanwhile, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule urged the Russian government to play a “constructive role” regarding Ukraine and warned Russia would pay a price for a Ukrainian collapse.
In Sevastopol, an hour’s drive to the south, Russian businessman Alexei Chaly took over as mayor, two days after he was declared the head of the city by a show of hands at a rally of thousands in the port city, his aide, Andrei Petrov, said outside the city hall.
Hundreds of pro-Russians rallied outside the building, declaring allegiance to Moscow.
“In one minute we became Ukrainian citizens and no one asked for our opinion” about Ukraine’s break from the Soviet Union in 1991, said Galina Sosluk, 60, the widow of a Russian naval captain who served 33 years in the Black Sea fleet: “We aren’t immigrants. We were born and raised here. Neo-fascists are taking over the government in Ukraine.”