Page last updated at 00:05 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Crimea's loyalty split in Ukraine election

Local bus in Crimea
The local bus is a good place to find out how people feel about the election

As Ukraine prepares to vote in a new president in an election run-off on Sunday, the BBC's Jamie Coomarasamy reports from Crimea, where people are ambivalent about their Ukrainian nationality.

It is easy to mix up Russia and Ukraine when you are in Crimea.

Just ask Viktor Yanukovych.

The Ukrainian presidential candidate made a faux pas last week, when he referred to the Russian writer Anton Chekhov - a long time resident of the peninsula - as Ukrainian.

But in this part of the country his gaffe is unlikely to benefit his opponent on Sunday, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

At least, that is what I was told - by a multitude of voices - when I took a ride on the form of transport known locally as "Hyde Park on wheels"; the old, rickety, Soviet-era trolley bus that lurches around town.

The nickname comes from their elderly passengers, who like to leap onto their metaphorical soap boxes - such as those found in Hyde Park's Speakers Corner - whilst sitting comfortably in their seats.

'Ukraine for the people'

A basic question about the election, on route number 10, unleashed a torrent of comments.

All of them were anti-Mrs Tymoshenko.

"You can't trust someone who changes her opinions as often as she changes dresses" and "she should be in jail" were typical.

We don't know who our president will be after the election... and that's how we're different from Russia
Resident of Crimea

Crimea is Yanukovych country.

Most posters in the capital, Simferopol, feature his face, with the less-than-inspiring slogan "Ukraine for the people".

The blue Yanukovych campaign tents were the only visible signs of canvassing in town.

They were manned by glum-looking supporters who said they were constantly asked one question: who is going to win?

Even Mr Yanukovych's opponents use his face in their low-profile campaign.

On one sticker I saw - in that same, number 10 trolley bus - he was grimacing, as though suffering from indigestion.

The text read: "Soon this portrait will be hanging in every school."

'I will die Russian'

All of his posters were in Russian. It is the only language you hear in Simferopol's streets; the only language on Simferopol's street signs.

Crimean women talking on a local trolley bus
Elderly passengers on the bus are very forthcoming with their opinions

But then in the modern period, Crimea is a relatively new addition to Ukraine; having been handed over to the then-Soviet Republic of Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.

And while other nationalities trace their roots to this part of the world - notably the Crimean Tatars - the majority of people here seem drawn towards Mother Russia's bosom.

"I was born Russian and I will die Russian," said Valentina, defiantly, as she rattled her money box in the direction of worshippers leaving Simferopol's Novotroitsky Cathedral.

She was part of a small group of begging babushkas, who told me that they did not need Europe, Nato or America, although they admitted admiration for Barack Obama's ability to excite the public.

They will be voting for Victor, but thinking of Barack.

A young worshipper called Anya - a fluent English speaker with a job in PR - said she was also a Yanukovych supporter, although she admitted that the man who, in his youth, served two prison terms for violent offences is "no angel".


She believes the legacy of the Orange Revolution - which brought Mrs Tymoshenko and outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko to power, after Mr Yanukovych's official victory was ruled fraudulent - is poverty and hunger for many Ukrainians.

She said she was not anti-Western, but disillusioned.

"Ukraine looks to the West and tries to borrow some laws, but representatives of the government violate these laws," she said. "If they obeyed them, life would be better."

She, at least, had a preferred candidate on Sunday.

'A real democratic step'

The same cannot be said for Pasha and Zhenya, a local couple who invited me to their flat for a "real Crimean meal": Greek salad, Ukrainian borsch (containing potatoes, unlike the Russian version) and a Jewish dish of beef with plums.

Poster of Viktor Yanukovych
Mr Yanukovych is trying hard to shed the image of being "Moscow's man"

A zoologist and translator, they speak Russian at home, but know Ukrainian, too.

And they believe it is important that their two-year-old daughter, Sasha, is also fluent in what is - to the irritation of many local Russian speakers - Ukraine's only state language.

They were always doubtful about the claims of the Orange Revolution, saying that it all looked far more rosy in Kiev than in the rest of the country.

But they don't trust Mr Yanukovych either, so they will not be voting for either candidate on Sunday; having supported one of the newer, unsuccessful, faces in the first round.

Pasha said he did not feel Russian or Ukrainian, but Crimean.

And his wife added that despite the disappointments of the past five years and the shortcomings of the ruling elite, this independent spirit had come to infuse Ukraine's political culture, in a way that distinguished it from that of its giant, eastern neighbour.

"We don't know who our president will be after the election," she mused, "and that's how we're different from Russia".

"This is a real democratic step."

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