Kyiv, March 16, 2014. Over the past few weeks tensions between Ukraine and Russia have increased dramatically over Crimea and have begun to spread to Eastern regions of Ukraine. The cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk have seen numerous demonstrations both in support of and in opposition to Russian intervention in Ukraine. Clashes between the two groups of protesters have led to bloodshed and have resulted in a number of deaths. A major cause of these clashes is thought to be the large numbers of Russian “tourists” who are reportedly crossing Ukraine’s border and appearing in Ukraine’s Eastern cities to participate in pro-Russian demonstrations.
The reasons for demonstrations have included issues related to language rights and national identity.
The first clash between supporters of the two groups occurred in Donetsk on March 13, 2014. Pro-Ukrainian activists gathered on Lenin Square in downtown Donetsk and were later surrounded by pro-Russian activists. Throughout the standoff, pro-Ukrainian supporters were violently beaten by pro-Russian activists. As a result of the confrontation, two people were killed and nearly 50 injured.
A similar scenario took place on March 14, 2014 in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Protesters from both sides held demonstrations which eventually clashed, resulting in violence and deaths. The pro-Ukrainian demonstration was initiated on Kharkiv Svoboda Square, and was later met by pro-Russian radical supporters on Rymorska Street. Pro-Russian activists whose numbers were significantly higher violently dispersed the pro-Ukrainian rally. Two people were killed, five hospitalized and 38 arrested during the standoff. Local authorities confiscated pneumatic weapons (air-powered rifles) and firearms from the arrested activists.
Ukraine has recently become a popular destination for numerous Russian “tourists”, who are visiting cities in Eastern Ukraine where the vast majority of the population speaks Russian. Reportedly, Russian citizens have been spotted at earlier demonstrations held in Kharkiv and Donetsk. Presumably, the growing number of these Russians may be linked to the official reason that Russian troops invaded Ukrainian Crimea. The conflict between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists has been escalating since the self-proclaimed government of the Crimean peninsula announced its decision to hold a referendum, which was immediately deemed illegitimate by the Constitutional Court of Ukraine, by the Venice Commission and by the international community, including the governments of the U.S. and the EU countries.
Despite its lack of legitimacy on March 16, 2014 voting on the so called Crimean “referendum” did take place. Shortly after 8 p.m. exit polls showed that 93% of voters opted for Crimea to become a part of Russia with voter turnout exceeding 85%, according to Kryminform, the commission responsible for holding the referendum. Notably, the referendum was reported to have been held with multiple violations including allowing foreign citizens to vote.