Simferopol Stories: Bent cops and language wars in a divided town

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The Independent Online

If charm and elegance define your idea of a desirable city, Simferopol will not meet your requirements. It is almost as though this scruffily rambling conurbation has been called upon to balance the delights of the increasingly chic resorts just an hour's drive over mountains to the south. In so many ways, the capital of the Crimea has caught the short straw.

It has the airport, railway station and road junction through which most holiday-makers must pass to reach the sea; at any one time a large number of those thronging its streets are just passing through. It was only lightly touched by Ukraine's Orange revolution. Lenin still lords it over the square in front of the government buildings. And, although capitalism has made its mark, with casinos, money-changing booths and cafes every few yards, the city is undisguisedly poor. Jewellery shops tempt customers inside with offers to exchange old baubles for new and a store has cornered the market in "second-hand European clothes".

Its mixed identity falls short of feeling cosmopolitan. While the rest of Ukraine is divided relatively neatly, with Russian-speakers predominating in the east and Ukrainian-speakers in the West, in the Crimea there is a three-way split: Russians, Ukrainians and the Tatar population compete for public money, space and political power. After the Orange revolution, the Russians, at almost 60 per cent, feel displaced. The Ukrainians feel at once vindicated and apprehensive, while the Tatars, who started returning in the 1980s from the Central Asian exile into which they had been brutally forced by Stalin, are trying to reclaim their old land, or any land at all. All these tensions converge in Simferopol.

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Two blonde girls in their late teens sit at a card table on Rosa Luxembourg street, chatting and preening in the sunshine. The placard behind them explains that they are collecting signatures for a petition; 220,000 already collected in two weeks. Its purpose is to press for an amendment to the Ukrainian constitution that would enshrine Russian as joint official language with Ukrainian. To pass, an amendment needs the support of three-quarters of Ukraine's 400 MPs.

The petition is designed to put pressure on local MPs. "If they don't support it, we'll campaign to throw them out," says one girl. With parliamentary elections in March, and Ukraine still a simmering political cauldron, this is no idle threat. An elderly woman stops to sign. She complains that all prescription labels are now in Ukrainian and she cannot understand them.

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Russians have treated the Crimean resorts as their summer playground since the 19th century, and still do, even though they now have to cross a border, change their roubles into hryvny and pay Ukraine's higher prices. With car ownership now common, thousands of Russians make the long trek south at this time of year. Reading between the lines of the local newspaper, it seems that their passage through Simferopol and its environs has become a nice little earner for the local traffic police.

After complaints from Russian drivers that they were being importuned by bent Ukrainian cops - accusations hotly denied by local police chiefs - encounters between police and drivers were secretly recorded.

The result? More than 500 "breaches of discipline" registered across 365 encounters. The police authority is now appealing to holidaymakers not to "tempt" the cops or to break the law by "offering a bribe".

If things don't improve, Ukraine's Interior Minister, Yuri Lutsenko, has threatened to drive around in a Russian-registered car to test the southern charm of his officers for himself. He says that if he comes across any rude or corrupt behaviour, he will withdraw all the traffic cops from Crimea for the summer.

"Whoopee," says a local reporter, "then we really will have a ball."