Crimea crisis: Echoes from history as big powers look to Yalta

Conference of the three leaders in February 1945 was an attempt to usher stability and peace

Yalta

The choir of the Russian Black Sea Fleet sang rousing battle hymns of the Great Patriotic War to an exultant crowd; Slavic heritage was celebrated with traditional dancing; bikers and Chechens united in praise of Putin as they came to show solidarity along with far right MPs from Moscow and vigilantes dressed in black.

Sixty years after Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met here to carve up post-war Europe, Yalta was marking a new and incendiary redrawing of the map of the Continent; the annexation of Crimea by the Kremlin after the impending referendum, followed, many here vocally hoped, by other parts of Ukraine in the near future.

The conference of the three leaders in February 1945 was an attempt to usher stability and peace after the devastating years of strife. It was at Yalta that territory Poland had claimed went to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the causes of the bitter divisions in the country today.

The idea was to keep Stalin happy, before the Cold War ended the wartime alliance against the common enemy. The echoes of this event were very much present at Yalta on this sunny day.

Russian sailors danced with local girls as they had done when the siege by Hitler's forces was lifted; the Hammer and Sickle flew alongside the current red, white and blue flag of the Russian Federation; the now familiar orange and black ribbons of the military order of St George, commemorating victory over Germany, seemed to be everywhere. There were also signs proclaiming "Nato, No!" and "America Keep Away" and "Fascists from the West, We will Fight You!"

The last was not aimed at the US or the European Union, but the new government in Ukraine and the supposed 'storm troopers' from the Maidan, the centre of protests in Kiev which overthrew Viktor Yanukovych. Posters for the referendum on the road here showed two maps of Crimea, one under Russian, the other enveloped in a Swastika.

Taking down the colours of the adversary and raising one's own has been one of the rituals during the upheaval. As the concert by the Black Sea Fleet continued on the stage, under a statue of Lenin, a group of local youths tried repeatedly to haul down the Ukrainian flag flying over the square.

But the confrontation has gone far beyond just symbolism. Fierce clashes have continued in the eastern city of Donetsk between Ukrainian and Russian factions, the government in Kiev, meanwhile, has charged that exercises on the border by Moscow's forces could be preparations for an imminent invasion.

To Ilya Drozdov, standing on the promenade in Yalta, whether there is peace or war depends on the Kiev government. The MP from Moscow - the deputy head of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's right-wing party and a key figure in the Duma's committee to 'reintegrate' former Soviet countries - has introduced amendments to the law to fast track Ukrainians into Russian citizenship.

Under sanctions being discussed by Western governments, Mr Drozdov could be among Russian officials facing a visa ban for helping to dismember Crimea. "That does not bother me at all. So, we won't go to England or America, we'll take our holidays here, in India, China, countries which are strong enough to stand up to Western bullies. But we won't stop helping the people in Ukraine.

"As we can see, there are many who simply don't want to be part of Ukraine and this illegal government in Kiev should not stand in their way, if they do, there'll be trouble, violence", said Mr Drozdov. "Crimea will become a part of the Russian Federation very soon, in weeks. The east and the south will be in Russia within four or five months. These people feel they belong in Russia, the only way those currently in power in Kiev can stop this is by force."

Culture was a fundamental factor in Nadia Chuchirova voting to leave Ukraine. "We are Russian, this was Russia until Khruschev gave us away. If the people in Lviv and other places want to join the West let them do so, it's not our culture". I pointed out that she was saying this in a branch of MacDonald's. "It's convenient", she shrugged. Her husband Viktor laughed: "it feels like we are already back in Russia, look at how long we have been queuing".

Dimitri Svedorsky and Viktor Taranowski were fervent followers of another strand of Western culture; both are Hell's Angels. They had met Mr Putin, also a keen biker, when he rode a Harley Davidson at a convention in Sevastopol two years ago; a motorcycle group, Night Wolves, close to the Russian president, have been manning checkpoints alongside separatist forces in Crimea in the current crisis.

The two Yalta bikers said economic concerns over joining the European Union was a reason for their desire to leave Ukraine. They also looked forward to "strong leadership Putin provides." The admiration for firm rule was shared by Zahur Zorabof, a 21 year old from Chechnya. There had been reports of fighters loyal to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov arriving to bolster pro-Russian forces, but Mr Zorabof stressed he was not one of them." I do not have a vote in the referendum, but I'd vote to join Russia if I had one," he said. "The government in Chechnya is with Putin. It is more strict than even during the Soviet time, but everybody needs strong leaders."

There are countless pictures and mementos of the three strong leaders who signed the Yalta Declaration at Livadia Palace. The popular tourist attraction was almost void of people apart from a small party of slightly bewildered looking Japanese tourists. At the dingy waxwork display, the member of the curating staff collecting the tickets was unsure whether she would have a job for long. "I don't know whether they would employ many of us if people keep staying away", Elaina Andreyeva sighed. She was from Donetsk in the east, could that, too, become a part of Russia? "Maybe".

Natalya Petrovna, one of two visitors in the room, was from the west of the country. "I am 50 years old and it is my first visit here, I don't know whether we will be able to come to Crimea in the future, so I am really glad I came". What did she think of the way Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill divided up countries, especially Ukraine? "I don't know enough to judge. But people can live together peacefully if allowed to. I really hope Ukraine stays together".

Back on the promenade a group of men were sitting on the roof terrace of a café watching the concert below. Their baseball hat bore an "anti-terrorist" logo in English. They were polite, but refused to identify themselves beyond they were there to "prevent attacks", one, Alexei, said he had been in the Russian Navy.

People from the square had turned away from the music to look up beyond us to where the youths in combat fatigues and boots were still trying unsuccessfully to bring down the flag: "amateurs" snorted Alexei. As we left, the blue and yellow colours Ukraine were still there, defiantly flying in the breeze.

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