Ukraine crisis: Tensions run high in the once-relaxed Crimean city of Yevpatoria


Click to follow
The Independent Online

This time last year, Christians, Muslims and Jews had gathered at the Asheq Omer Park to celebrate the peace and understanding between the different faiths in their ancient city. Today, the mosque next door is guarded by volunteers during the night, while an alarm system and surveillance cameras have been installed, and records are being kept of incidents of intimidation.

Yevpatoria, built on the site of a Greek settlement from 500 BC, prides itself on its culture and heritage. A regeneration programme of the old town, ‘New Jerusalem”, with churches, mosques, synagogues, a dervish monastery and excavations has won international awards. The place also boasts of being in the forefront in conservation schemes and green technology.

But the turbulent wind of change which has swept through Crimea is now threatening “the tranquillity” which the residents prize so much. A Ukrainian military base was taken over by the Russians near here on Wednesday, soon after the storming of the naval headquarters in Sevastopol. There are not many signs of Kremlin’s forces on the ground, but the Self Defence Force, raised by the Crimean separatist government has been in evidence for a while, and with them has come division and discord.

“It is such a pity that this is happening in this of all places; we thought that we would not be affected by all this anger we see elsewhere” said Islam Abdulrashid, the muzzin of the Juma Jemi mosque. “We are working very hard with other religions, we have a forum where we meet, we are trying to keep people calm. But then we see that guns have been handed out, we see Cossacks and, yes, we are worried.”

There had not been any serious attack on the 400-year-old mosque, designed by Sinan, the master Ottoman architect, and the place where the Tatar Khans who once ruled Crimea came to pray before their enthronement until recently. “It has been harassment, insults, we don’t want to publicise the details” said Mr Abdulrashid. “But we are being careful, there are people we can call to come here quickly if necessary. We have had to do this a few times. I can call them with this,” he said, holding up a security key.

YEVPATORIA, UKRAINE - MARCH 12: Older couples dance at a rally in support of the upcoming referendum on March

Vladimir Niedienko, walking through the park named after the 17th century poet Ashiq Omer, said he was saddened by the signs of xenophobia. He had moved there with the family of his son, Oleg, who originally came to recuperate from illness contracted while carrying out evacuations in Chernobyl as a policeman.

The 80-year-old former engineer had voted for unification with Russia in the recent referendum. “I am an old man, I was born in Russia and I want to die in Russia. I believed in the Soviet Union, and one of the reasons for that was that we were all in their together, different races.

“I did not vote this time to say Russians are superior to others, that someone who is Orthodox is better than a Catholic or a Muslim. My son gets very angry when he hears such talk, they didn’t ask people about race or religion when they were getting them out of Chernobyl. I was a soldier once; I’ll box the ear of anyone who I see trying to damage the mosque.”


However, Viktor Aleksiyev, a member of the Self Defence Force, was keen to stress the dangers posed by outside agitators. “We have got all sorts living here no problem, but we need to be prepared for trouble,” he maintained. “The problem is that there are people who don’t want to accept the democratic verdict of the referendum and the so-called Ukrainian government is sending agents to exploit this. There is information from Simferopol [the state capital] confirming this.

“If the security forces arrest someone who is a Tatar, it will not be because he is a Tatar, but maybe he is planning to do something influenced by these agents, maybe because he is what they call a Salafist preaching jihad. We are patriots, we are here to defend our country, is this a Christian Orthodox country? Or course it is, but that is a different matter for another time.”

Valentina Churnenko, a helper at the Cathedral of St Nicholas Sabor, built in 1774, had a much more inclusive vision for her country. “I used to live near Kiev and people tended to categorise much more there: is he or she a Ukrainian? A Russian? That is not the case in this city, here it is much more relaxed, there’s lots on intermarriage. I have lived here 20 years and I am not leaving”.

Also staying is 40-year-old Ganady Pridsker, one of those looking after the city’s progressive Egie Kapai synagogue. “The Jewish community here is quite small; a lot of the young people have left, they have gone to America, Australia, Israel. But I have no intention of going, we have young children, we like it here.”

Mr Pridsker declined to say how he had voted at the referendum, but was dubious about the government in Kiev and some of the elements who had taken part in the protests at the Maidan. A number of hard right-wing groups had been present and some of their members are in the new administration.

“I do not see anything to be confident about in what is going on in Kiev. There may be some problems here, but in this city we are strong and united, we can’t let anybody divide us” he said. “This is now part of Russia, so we must look at positives, see if they bring in investment, lift up Crimea economically.”

Dilyara Yakubova’s company had invested heavily in Yevpatoria, focusing on craftsmanship and renewable energy, trying to attract eco-tourism and those focusing on the region’s rich history. She is deeply apprehensive about what the future will bring.

“Maybe Crimea will just become a vast military base for Russia; the coastal cities like these are dependant almost totally on their navy. There may be investment in travel, but that’s likely to be huge coach parties, mass tourism which would be bad for the environment and our culture. I am worried about all the money we have spent on hotels to use things like solar panels will not be recouped” she said.

“There is a bigger political problem. There has been very dangerous radicalising across society, people have become more extreme. Everyone is tense, people have guns and there is a real danger of violence”.

Mrs Yakubova is a Tatar. Her 82-year-old father, Haji Majid Mambetov, was 14 when the community was expelled en masse from Crimea on the orders of Stalin after the Second World War. He remembers the terror of being taken away at midnight, dead bodies being thrown out of suffocating train carriages, his father dying of malnutrition in exile in Uzbekistan.

“People are afraid those days will return” said Mrs Yakubova. “That is unlikely; the Russians will take over and impose order. But they will not be able to cope with the non-conformity of Yevpatoria, that will be lost; and that will be a real pity.”