The pro-Russian authorities who declared Crimea part of Russia on Thursday said they were carrying out the will of the overwhelming majority of its residents.
The streets belong to Russia’s supporters: crowds chanting “Rossiya! Rossiya!” and waving the Russian tricolour.
But for the quieter people who are proud to call themselves Ukrainian citizens – no one knows which side is the majority – the move came as a sharp and sudden shock, bringing fears of chaos, forced emigration or war.
“I am Ukrainian. I want my own, Ukrainian soldiers to protect me. I don’t want to be part of Russia, I hate Russia,” said Tanya Kulik, 16, gesturing to a pro-Russian crowd.
Many other people, including ethnic Russians with roots in Russia, also consider themselves Ukrainians.
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“I am Russian: I was born in Russia. My father was a Russian officer. But we have lived in Ukraine since 1989. I am a Ukrainian citizen. Although I have the right to Russian citizenship, I have never sought it,” said Alexandra Kvitko, editor-in-chief of Black Sea TV.
Her station was the only independent TV channel in Crimea until this week when the pro-Russian authorities switched it off. On Thursday its signal and those of the two main stations from Kiev were replaced in Crimea with Russian state channels.
She said the vote behind closed doors by an unverified number of parliamentarians to declare the region part of Russia was proof they were afraid to find out what Crimeans think.
“Now they are not even holding their blessed referendum to ask the opinion of Crimeans. They just decided,” she said.
If Moscow does annex Crimea she may have to leave: “Because Russia does not have independent media – or barely any – maybe we will move to the channel to Kiev and try to broadcast the Crimean point of view from Kiev.”
“THERE WILL BE BLOOD”
Crimea has a narrow ethnic Russian majority and was administered as part of Russia within the Soviet Union until 1954. Many residents have Russian passports, especially near Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea Fleet. The views of those who support the Russian takeover are passionately held.
But that does not mean public opinion in a province of 2 million people straightforwardly favours Moscow’s rule. The last time residents were asked, in 1991, they very narrowly voted for independence along with the rest of Ukraine.
However many want to join Russia, hundreds of thousands do not. Ukrainian citizens would presumably be required to accept Russian nationality or become foreigners.
Leonid Pilunsky, a member of the regional parliament who opposes the pro-Russian authorities, said he and other lawmakers were not summoned for Thursday’s vote and were certain not enough members would have been present for a quorum. “There was no quorum. This was not a decision by parliament, it was just a statement issued by a collaborationist,” he said.
“It is all lawlessness and crime. When parliament is surrounded by men in uniforms with no insignia, it is impossible to describe anything that takes place inside as legitimate.”
Although Russia’s takeover has so far been bloodless, he believed violence was likely. The local authorities would provoke it as an excuse to crack down on their foes: “There will be provocation. The Russian agents will need blood.”
The group likely to react most strongly to being annexed to Russia are the Crimean Tatars, the indigenous Muslim people of the peninsula, who were deported to Central Asia en masse after World War Two and allowed to return only in the 1980s.
Those who returned now make up 12 percent of the population, having resurrected ancient cities that became ghost towns when their parents and grandparents were packed into rail cars on Stalin’s orders.
Many still harbour fierce hatred for Russia, and have long proudly boasted of their enthusiasm for independent Ukraine. Thousands of Tatars marched in favour of unity with Kiev last week on what proved to be the eve of the Russian takeover.
“My colleagues, the lawmakers … who voted for this are simply crazy,” Refat Chubarov, Tatar leader in Crimea’s parliament, said on Facebook. “It is clear that they are carrying out the will of others…. They have lost their minds!”
About 100 Tatar women gathered on a village roadside on Thursday to protest what they said was an occupation, chanting “Crimea is Ukraine” and “We are for peace.”
Many brought strollers and children in tow, holding blue and yellow balloons the colours of the Ukrainian flag.
“Who needs war? Why are they here occupying our land?” said Safirnar Dzhamila, holding a poster of Putin’s face spliced with Hitler’s that read “Putin, hands off Ukraine!”.
Two ethnic Tatar women who moved here 20 years ago from Abkhazia – a region of Georgia now occupied by Russian forces after hundreds of thousands of Georgians were forced to flee in an ethnic conflict in the early 1990s – broke into tears.
“We were caught in exactly the same conflict. We fled with our grandchildren. Now it is happening all over again,” said Remize Khaibulayev, 58. “No one who hasn’t lived through war, knows what it is like. … We saw war, and hunger and refugees. Everyone is scared the soldiers will provoke something.”