Divided Crimean town of Novoozerne caught in tug of war

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 12:17am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 5:26am

For years, the little Crimean town was closed off from the rest of the world, a secretive community at the edge of a key Soviet naval base, sealed by roadblocks and armed guards.

Today, to get to Novoozerne, you just follow a pitted two-lane road far into the Crimean countryside, past collective farms abandoned decades ago and villages where it's hard to see any life, even at midday.

There's not much in the town any more, just the occasional ship that has sailed up the Black Sea inlet to this isolated spot, a handful of crumbling navy buildings and an armoury ringed by barbed wire.

But the Russians want it.

The little forgotten town is now divided, torn between those who welcomed the arrival over the weekend of dozens of Russian soldiers wearing unmarked uniforms and those who back the Ukrainians who are refusing to surrender their weapons.

"We know who they are and we see (what they are doing) as terrorism," said Sergei Reshetnik, a local businessman furious over the Russians' arrival. "We just want to live quietly."

The stand-off in Novoozerne between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers is a scene playing out across Crimea, days after Moscow effectively seized political power across the strategic Black Sea peninsula, establishing a pro-Russian regional government backed up by hundreds - perhaps thousands - of soldiers.

The seizure of power came after months of street demonstrations in the capital, Kiev, which forced out Ukraine's president, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. The new government has taken a sharp turn away from Moscow and wants closer ties to the European Union.

If Russia expected the Ukrainian military to go easily, handing over its weapons as soon as it was asked, things have turned out far more complicated.

Instead, military installations across Crimea - many of them surrounded or seized by Russian forces - have refused to surrender, raising the tension and leading to fears of all-out combat.

Ukraine's new government has ordered the bases to remain loyal to Kiev.

In Novoozerne, the stand-off turned into an impasse. After the initial confrontation, the Russians moved most of their forces away from the base and into an abandoned building, leaving about a dozen heavily armed soldiers in hurriedly dug trenches outside the armoury.

Meanwhile, members of pro-Russian self-defence groups - which have often worked closely with the Russian military - set up a perimeter to search vehicles leaving the compound.

They were thrilled at the Russians' arrival.

To them, what happened in Kiev was a coup staged by anti-Russian fascists who they fear will punish the ethnic Russians who dominate this part of Ukraine.

So, they said, they were making sure no weapons made it out of the armoury.

"We don't want to become another Yugoslavia here," said Alexei Maslyukov, a resident who organised the checkpoint, barely 15 metres from where masked Russians watched with automatic weapons.

Crimea was a crown jewel of the tsarist and Soviet empires, and ethnic Russians moved there in droves over the years.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and Ukraine's independence, many Crimeans continued to see themselves as more Russian than Ukrainian.

By all appearances, most Crimeans have welcomed the Russian military, and given only scattered support to the Ukrainian soldiers.

But Novoozerne, which outwardly is just another vision of post-Soviet decay, with its identical concrete-block apartments and empty storefronts, is diverse.

There are Russians and Tatars, the Turkic people who once dominated Crimea.

There are Azeris, gypsies and Jews. Few of these people have any loyalty to Moscow.

Dozens of local residents turned out to shout angrily at Russian soldiers to leave the base's main gate. The Russians soon withdrew.