Pro-Russian demonstrators wave Russian and Crimea flags and shout slogans during a protest in front of a local government building in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine, on Feb. 27. / Darko Vojinovic, AP
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine - As officials in Kiev move to contain unrest in the Crimea and others fret over divisions in Ukraine, there's still no consensus whether the threat of Ukraine's dissolution is real or overstated.
While Ukrainians in the west of the country and many in the east speak of unity, ethnic Russians in the Crimea say they're fearful that they'll have no voice in a government dominated by Ukrainian nationalists.
"It's really not about separation, it's about saving ourselves," said Mikhail Nichik, 37, in Sevastopol. "We are scared, I am scared. I have two kids 7 and 12 years old and I'm worried about them. So now I consider separation not for political reasons but because we're scared."
On Thursday, Ukrainian officials activated the country's police forces following the seizure of the regional parliament building in the Crimea. That followed a group of "armed individuals" with guns seizing the Crimean Supreme Council building in Simferopol, in southern Ukraine, Interfax, Ukraine's official news agency reported.
The armed takeover followed a day of scuffles between rival factions of ethnic Crimean Tatars - many of whom support the interim government - and members of the Russian-speaking population who reject the caretaker government as an illegitimate coup.
Local Russian media reported Thursday, citing a statement from the Crimean parliament, that a referendum on Crimea's autonomy will be sought.
The night before, the neighboring city of Sevastopol was a colorful pageant of Russian flags and song.
"The situation we're in now is a catastrophe - we did not expect it," said demonstrator Vladimir Protynenko, 62, dressed head-to-toe in military fatigues. "Let's turn back - but we cannot turn back - because (the nationalists) are like wolves. They will pounce on us. Unless they're removed we'll seek Russia's help to separate because otherwise they'll simply kill us."
Elsewhere in the region, locals say demonstrators are fearful of eroding language and cultural rights for ethnic Russians, not because they want to secede.
"They are for (ousted president Viktor) Yanukovych not because they like him but because they think we will replace one set of oligarchs with another. ...They think that everything will be the same but that there will be an assault on the Russian language," said Yuri Kovalyov, a native of the Russian-speaking city of Odessa.
"People think there is chaos and anarchy here," he added, referring to the capital, Kiev. "That's what the Russian news channels they watch are saying."
Still, not everyone in the wide swath that is east and south Ukraine opposes regime change in Kiev or supports Yanukovych.
It is here, in the south, where most believed Yanukovych was hiding - he is now reportedly in Russia, according to Interfax Ukraine - since his ouster by parliament over the weekend. This is where he has traditionally enjoyed most support. Still, some say the ex-president has been losing that since the protests broke out in November.
Oleskandr Gor, 33, originally from Donetsk in the east, says before his ouster, Yanukovych had wanted to appear as a strongman leader and feared appearing weak, which would cause him to lose legitimacy among core supporters.
"The political elite of the eastern Ukraine, they don't like to feel weak," he said.
Even so, when protests broke out over Yanukovych's rejection of a long-planned trade deal with the European Union, authorities in Crimea - an autonomous region where the majority of the population is ethnically Russian - made it clear which side they were on.
And since then, some have continued to reject the new leadership in Kiev.
"We are not following the instructions of the Maidan," Sergei Aksyonov, the leader of the party Russian Unity told the Russian daily Izvestia earlier this week.
"We are not happy about what is going on in the country," Aksyonov said. "We are creating fast-response battalions and are ready to face up to the Maidan activists."
That sort of sentiment - as well as the rise of ultra-nationalism instigated in part by the turmoil on the streets of the Ukrainian capital - is something that makes many Ukrainians fear their country could split apart.
Still, accounts from some eastern Ukrainian cities suggest that the much-touted East-West is not clear-cut and fears of separatism may be overblown.
It was from here the ex-president allegedly attempted to flee the country even as border guards did not let his plane leave.
And some of the president's most loyal supporters were quick to desert him, such as the governor of the Kharkiv region, Mikhaylo Dobkin.
Even in Donetsk, a typical eastern Ukrainian city and mining stronghold of Yanukovych's Party of the Regions, locals say there is little opposition to the new government.
"There is a rally (of EuroMaidan opponents) that's been going on for days now in Donetsk - they gather near Lenin monument to protect it in case people try to take it down, although there is no such threat here," said Oleksiy Matsuka, chief editor of local online newspaper Donbass News in Donetsk.
"People are very politically and socially apathetic - they are not used to going to the squares (to protest) and there was no single real rally in support of Party of Regions (the former president's party)."
"In general, people show no sign of opposition to new government," he added. "Those who were against EuroMaidan simply continue to support the Party of Region, which is now in opposition. Life in the city goes on."
Now, local politicians in Donetsk speak of the need for a united Ukraine, downplaying the notion that Russian-speaking regions may break away.
"I am for a strong and united Ukraine," the governor of the Donetsk region, Andrei Shyshatskiy, told journalists Monday. "I repeat it again right here and now."
To them, that means a Ukraine without Yanukovych.
"You have to look at the truth in the face," he said. "Many horrible and tragic mistakes have been made which resulted in many people's deaths. And that will undoubtedly lead to the president being held accountable."
What is important is that the new leadership in Ukraine act as if they are working for all Ukrainians, say analysts.
When they repealed a law over weekend stripping Russian as one of the two official languages, it sent the wrong signal to the south and east regions.
"It precisely plays into the hand of people who want to inflame divisions in the country," said Vitaly Chernetsky, associate professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of Kansas and president of the American Association for Ukrainian Studies. "It was not a very wise thing to do."
Still, it seems local officials in the region understand the way the wind is blowing.
Dobkin, a staunch ally of the ex-leader, announced on Monday he wanted to run for president at the snap elections called for May 25.
And Kharkiv Mayor Gennady Kernes has said he is ready to work with the new Kiev authorities.
"So far as President Yanukovych is concerned, it's already history," Kernes told reporters at Kharkiv airport earlier this week. "Let's think about the future."
Contributing: Alexei Korolyov in Vienna, Janelle Dumalaon and Luigi Serenelli in Berlin. McPhedran and Rudenko reported from Kiev.
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
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