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27 Feb, 2014 03:57

‘West plays with fire to drive the Russian naval base out of Crimea’

‘West plays with fire to drive the Russian naval base out of Crimea’

Crimea’s ethnic composition and Western policy towards Ukraine could create a Kosovo-like scenario where the majority of Russian speaking residents would claim independence which could lead to violence on the ground, Oxford historian Mark Almond told RT.

RT:If the EU and the US are concerned about doing what people on the Maidan want, why are they ignoring what people in Crimea want?

Mark Almond: Well one would have thought so if you’re going to listen to the crowd on the street on the square and there are many squares where there’re crowds including Simferopol and Sevastopol. The basic problem of course is what the Americans, particularly the lead military power in NATO want, is to eventually ease the Russian navy out of its base, out of its lease in Sevastopol in the Crimea. And so of course the fact that the great majority of people in Crimea not only 60 per cent that are actually Russian but many of the rest who speak Russian as their everyday language is something that the EU and NATO countries want to ignore. Of course if you have any kind of push to create a crisis, I’m afraid our democratic basis as in Kosovo where the great majority, where the great majority of Albanians wanted to be independent from Serbia, you would create a Kosovo crisis in Crimea. But of course strangely enough Washington and Brussels suddenly aren’t terribly interested in this. I myself think that creating a crisis is not a good idea, but nonetheless they seem to be bent on pushing to increase tension between people on the Peninsula. And of course there is a risk of violence against either ethnic Russians, civilians that are there or against the sailors and soldiers on the base.

RT:The Crimean Tatars have long been calling for the establishment of their own autonomy, why are they now siding with the pro-EU crowds in Kiev?

MA: I think this is a very incoherent position. The Tatars historically are seen as the traditional native inhabitants of the Crimea. Catherine the Great’s Russia took over 250 years ago and then of course Khrushchev, the communist dictator gave Crimea to Ukraine only 60 years ago. The Tatars feel that they have been neglected and eventually many of them who have been forced out of their territory have come back. But I think it is a great mistake to think that they are the supporters of the Ukrainian nationalism. My experience in the Crimea is that most Tatars speak Russian as their everyday language and of course they do learn Tatar as well. And they don’t have any great sympathy for Ukrainian nationalism and now of course the transitional government in Kiev has abolished the language rights, not only Russian but of Tatars and Hungarians in the West. So again we have this paradox. The EU is a great believer of minority rights, except when these minorities aren’t fully paid up supporters of its crowd on the streets of central Kiev. And I think again many Tatars in fact walked to the demonstration, I don’t think that we should overate the fact that a group of people, many of them have been beneficiaries of George Soros’s language schools and scholarships. We should not be overrating how many of the many thousands of Tatars who live in Crimea necessarily want trouble. I think this is an exaggeration.

Pro-Ukrainian activists rally in front of the Crimean parliament in Semfiropol on February 26, 2014. (AFP Photo / Vasiliy Batanov)

RT:At the start of the rally in Crimea, we saw the Tatars vastly outnumbering the ethnic Russian crowd. Does that reflect the real numbers among these ethnic groups there?

MA: No, of course what we see, actually what we saw on Maidan Square in Kiev, strangely enough the spontaneous demonstrations of pro-westerners is much better organized, funded when you bring in Brussels and lorry loads of people. But of course once this crowd assembled, I’m afraid it drew out the majority of the local population who are Russians, and this is very dangerous. It seems to me that the Americans and the people in the Soros foundation who support these local nationalist groups are playing with fire. Because if you begin to send out a relatively small crowd of people to ban things that frighten the majority of people in the first place. It is very dangerous just like it would be if suddenly a lot of Russians appeared in Lvov, in Western Ukraine and started saying “Shouldn’t we all be part of Russia”. It would be very provocative and very dangerous. But it seems to me that the West is not totally concerned about this danger and that I think could lead to another Crimean War exploding in our faces 160 years after the last one

RT:How did these ethnic groups end up in Crimea anyway?

MA: As I’ve said about 250 years ago, Crimea was ruled by the Muslim Tatar Khans who were subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Catherine the Great of Russia conquered what we now call the Ukraine and the Crimea. Then with the WWI, the Russian Revolution tool place and the anti-communists were driven out of Crimea and most of Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union. When Hitler came in 1941, he eventually captured Sevastopol in Crimea. But when the Nazis were forced to withdraw, Stalin took the view that the ethnic Tatars were being anti-Russian, anti-Soviet have collaborated with the Nazis. I think this is a travesty of the behavior of most those Tatars, although ironically now we have Germans newspapers saying, how wonderful the Tatars are to be collaborating with the united Europe. Leave that aside, huge numbers of Tatars were deported to Central Asia. Eventually in the Gorbachev period 30 years ago they were allowed to return, to come back to the Crimea. Sadly in the meantime all sorts of other people, who lived there themselves of course, could be Russians for generations, or people who in the Soviet period have moved in, are living where they’re used to live.

Pro-Ukrainian activists hold placards reading "Crimea+Ukraine is love" during a rally in front of the Crimean parliament in Semfiropol on February 26, 2014. (AFP Photo / Vasiliy Batanov)

So the tragedy for many of the Tatars is that they have left where they have grown up in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, come back to the Crimea and find nowhere to live, live in poverty and I’m afraid to say some of whom may be agitatedbecause of the living rate poverty. People also in the Western Ukraine do when somebody comes and says, you could have a career, here is a little bit of money to set up an activist NGO group and so on - who would not take it if you are destitute. And that I think is the danger. We have in fact an under employed population who can be agitated.

RT:So what do you think will happen next in Crimea?

MA: Well Crimea which is such a beautiful place should be the center of interaction between the Russian cultures, Chekov lived there, of Tatar culture and the playground on the seashore. The danger is if you allow people to be obsessed that one nation has to dominate, and in this case a very small number of Ukrainians who live in Crimea are being used by the great majority of the Ukrainians who live outside the Peninsula and by the West because it wants to get rid of the Russian naval base, to be a battering ram. And I think this is very dangerous. Ideally Crimea would be a sunny playground for everybody to enjoy. Sadly, I think people from a long way away are prepared to play with fire to drive the naval base out. But if we remember what happened in 1850s, we can discover that the Crimean conflict can turn out to drag in other people.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.