The battle for Kiev may well be over, but is the battle for Crimea about to begin?


Anti-government protesters react outside the Ukrainian parliament building in Kiev on Saturday as they wait for President Viktor Yanukovych's resignation. (Piero Quarantapiero Quaranta/AFP/Getty Images

The picture above shows the scene earlier today in Kiev, as Ukraine's parliament voted to hold early elections and dismiss President Viktor Yanukovych.

It's a heart-warming image. The bloody, protracted protests in Ukraine seem to have achieved their goals: Yanukovych is gone, new elections are due, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a key figure in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, has been freed from prison. Ukraine looks as though it might have pulled back from the brink.

If only it were that simple.

While many in Kiev are celebrating today, the situation in some other parts of the country still appear tense. For an example, look toward Crimea. The video below shows a small anti-government group being violently harassed after trying to honor those who died in the Maidan protests – they're shouted down, called "fascists," and eventually beaten before police step in. As the Guardian's Shaun Walker, who tweeted the video, explains, it looks "extremely ominous."

Crimea, of course, is about as geographically far away from Kiev as you can get in Ukraine. A peninsula jutting into the northern tip of the Black Sea, the strategically located region has been conquered and fought over many times over the course of history. It was the site of much of the fighting in the Crimean War, for example.

From the 18th century on, the region was part of Russia, but that changed in 1954, when the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union passed it from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a decision that is still controversial in some circles. Today the peninsula might still be a part of Ukraine, but in many ways it is separate from the rest of the country: It has its own legislature and constitution, for example, and it's still very Russian: Some  60 percent of the population is ethnically Russian, with the rest being Ukrainian or Crimean Tatars.


Ukraine's language divide. Data source: 2001 national census. (Laris Karklis/Washington Post)

It appears that some members of this Russian community have regarded the events in Kiev with a mixture of horror and opportunism: The chaos in Ukraine could finally be the region's chance to turn back to Moscow.

RFE/RL's Robert Coalson recently went to Crimea and spoke to members of the pro-Russian separatist movement there. One politician he spoke to had the novel idea of leasing Crimea to Russia in exchange for a cancellation of Ukraine's debt to Moscow. But what would happen after the lease expired? "After 99 years, I don't think Ukraine will last that long as an independent country," Valery Podyachy, head of a group called the Popular Front, told Coalson. "Russia will exist because Russia is after all a leading global player on a par with the United States, China, and the European Union. So it is obvious that Russia will exist. But will Ukraine exist...? That's why, in principle, this solution would satisfy everyone."

Other politicians have expressed similar hopes. Volodymyr Konstantinov, the speaker of Crimea’s parliament, recently told lawmakers that the region may well secede if Ukraine's tensions begin to pull it apart. The parliament has also suggested that the region's constitution be amended to list Russia as the "guarantor" of Crimea's autonomy.

The situation is complicated by the fact that many Russians view Crimea as part of Russia: one recent poll found that 56 percent of Russians view Crimea as a Russian territory – a far larger percentage than the number who viewed Chechnya, inside Russian federation borders, as part of Russia (39 percent). A few days ago, a Russian official told the Financial Times that if Ukraine began to get more chaotic, they would step in to protect the ethnic Russians and the Russian navy base on the peninsula. “If Ukraine breaks apart, it will trigger a war,” the unnamed official told the newspaper. “They will lose Crimea first [because] we will go in and protect [it], just as we did in Georgia.” (Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would really want to set that precedent is unclear, however – Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University and an expert on Ukrainian affairs, recently argued that it would put Putin's grand plans for a "Eurasian Union" at risk.)

Still, it's worth thinking about Crimea when you see pictures from Kiev today. For many of the protesters at Kiev's Maidan, or Independence Square, and elsewhere, today is a day of celebration: After weeks of bloody confrontations, they have met some of their goals. As the Crimea example illuminates, however, the next step of this process is going to be extremely delicate.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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Adam Taylor | February 22