KIEV: Brawls erupted between rival factions on Ukraine’s volatile Crimean peninsula Wednesday as the former Soviet nation’s new leaders prepared to unveil a unity cabinet and Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered snap military drills near the border.
The untested pro-Western interim team in Kiev is grappling with the dual threats of separatism and default as it tries to recover from three months of protests that triggered pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster following a week of carnage in which nearly 100 people died.
The wave of secessionist sentiment that gripped the Russified southeastern parts of Ukraine following the fall of the pro-Kremlin regime boiled over in Crimea as an angry crowd of a few thousand led by pro-Russian Cossacks squared off against a force of a similar size spearheaded by Muslim Tatars.
Local health authorities said one man died of a heart attack during the mayhem in the port town of Simferopol. Ambulances were also called in to treat several people who suffered head contusions during scuffles that involved pepper spray and saw several bottles being hurled.
Tensions were ratched up still further when Putin ordered the military to undergo snap readiness drills — one of several announced in recent months — across a western swathe of Russia that borders the northeast corner of Ukraine.
“The commander-in-chief has set the task of checking the capability of the armed forces to deal with crisis situations posing a threat to the military security of the country,” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.
He also announced Russia was taking measures to ensure the security of its Black Sea naval fleet based in Crimea — a Black Sea peninsula that had answered to Moscow for centuries until being handed to the Ukrainian Soviet republic as a gift in 1954.
Russia has been venting daily outrage at the meteoric turn of events in a neighbor that Putin views as vital to his dream of building a post-Soviet alliance that could rival the EU and NATO blocs.
Both US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague gave the new leaders crucial backing on Tuesday and rejected Moscow’s claim that Ukraine was being forced to make a choice between East and West.
The interim team’s headaches have been compounded by Moscow’s decision to freeze a massive bailout package that Putin promised to Yanukovych as his reward for rejecting closer EU ties in a surprise November decision that sparked the mass protests.
Fears of a catastrophic default by Ukraine — which is seeking $35 billion in Western aid to keep functioning — saw the local currency sink to a record low against the dollar Wednesday.
Fears of pro-Russian regions breaking away saw interim leader Oleksandr Turchynov on Tuesday abruptly walk out of an emergency session of parliament to consult his security chiefs.
Top among the concerns are fears of mob violence in Crimea. Crowds have already ousted the mayor of Sevastopol — home to the Kremlin’s navies for the past 250 years — and appointed a Russian citizen in his place.
The deposed leader — who is wanted for “mass murder” — is widely believed to have gone into hiding in Crimea with his two sons and a small team of heavily-armed guards.
Kiev’s new leaders were offered some short-term relief when the Crimean parliament speaker canceled a planned vote on the peninsula’s secession.
“The question of leaving Ukraine will not be put before the parliament of Crimea,” Volodymir Konstantinov said.
But Wednesday’s scuffles threatened to continue across the peninsula and spread to other pro-Russian regions such as Yanukovych’s native industrial base of Donetsk.
Three of Ukraine’s post-Soviet leaders — who included former Moscow ally Leonid Kuchma — issued a joint statement accusing Russia of “resorting to direct intervention in the political life of Crimea.”
Russia must “show respect to the choices made by the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian government,” said a statement posted by former president Viktor Yushchenko and also featuring the names of Kuchma and former leader Leonid Kravchuk.
The lineup of the new pro-Western cabinet will be read out to the masses on Kiev’s barricades-riven Independence Square — the crucible of the latest wave of protests and also the site of the pro-democracy 2004 Orange Revolution that first nudged Ukraine on its Westward course.
“At 7:00 p.m. (1700 GMT) we will take to the stage to present the new government to the square,” the UDAR (Punch) party of former boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said on its website.
The new acting interior minister Arsen Avakov also disbanded the elite Berkut riot police force that many Ukrainians have fear since it was first formed in the dying years of Soviet rule.
The Berkut units carried metal shields and Kalashnikov rifles as they cracked down on protesters in Kiev and brutally beat those detained — forcing one man to strip naked in the freezing cold and parade in front of a police camera in an incident that gained infamy through the Internet.
“The Berkut is no more,” Avakov wrote on his Facebook account.
The new team’s attempts to ensure control of the security apparatus continued when Turchynov pronounced himself the commander in chief of the armed forces.