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In Crimea: 'We will protect our land from Western extremists'

By Elizabeth Landau, Diana Magnay and Ben Wedeman, CNN
updated 2:57 PM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Crimean supporters of Russia gather in public
  • One woman says they will protect the land from "Western extremists"
  • In Yalta, Alex Shiroki says hotels are closing
  • He is considering leaving Crimea if it becomes part of Russia

Editor's note: Diana Magnay reported from Simferopol and Ben Wedeman reported from Sevastopol in Ukraine.

(CNN) -- "Are you for Ukraine or for Russia?" Alex Shiroki's boss asked him Thursday.

Shiroki, 35, from Yalta, opposes the Russian invasion, and the proposed rejoining of Crimea to Russia. But he carefully said his views are "something in the middle" -- just in case his opinion could affect his job. His boss supports Russia.

"He says that Russia is more rich than Ukraine and we will have stability," Shiroki said. "Most of (the) people think like that."

It's amazing how normal life continues to appear in some parts of Crimea. People still go to work, to restaurants, to bars. But tensions continue to mount in the region, where lawmakers voted Thursday in favor of rejoining Russia and having a referendum in 10 days.

Many people are sincerely grateful for the Russian presence, said Maria Zaborovska, 24, who lives in Crimea and is translating for international radio journalists.

"I don't know if they fully realize -- if they know what it means," Zaborovska said of the pro-Russia supporters. Many of them were born in the Soviet Union and speak Russian, she said.

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As to how they would benefit from Crimea becoming part of Russia, people who support breaking off from Ukraine don't seem to have answers, she said. Zaborovska herself is against the Russian invasion.

In the main square in Simferopol, a crowd gathered Wednesday in support of Russia, waving flags.

"Our grandparents protected our land from the SS, and we will protect our land from Western extremists," one woman shouted. "Thank you Russia for protecting us."

Biscuits with Crimean jam were served up at a pro-Russian militia recruitment center, with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin watching over. Anna Bardina a Russia supporter, told CNN's Diana Magnay that she has been receiving threatening texts from far right elements, and even death threats from Chechnya.

"Russia is far more stable," she said. "They have no economic problems, not like here where we have movements like the Maidan and are in a political and economic mess," she said, referring to the popular pro-European street rallies that led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Areas around military bases showcase the bubbling tensions. Wednesday, outside the headquarters of the Ukrainian navy in Sevastopol, women tried to sneak up to windows and shove food through to the soldiers inside.

The facility is surrounded by pro-Russian civilians who call themselves a "civil defense group," backed up by masked, armed men in green combat fatigues, presumed to be Russian soldiers.

A woman with her young daughter, bringing soup and meatballs to her husband inside, was turned away. So was a Sevastopol Red Cross worker who tried to bring in supplies.

"There are no problems with food," one of the men told him. "Anyone who wants to eat can go home."

In the seaside resort city of Yalta, Alex Shiroki observed a crowd of hundreds gathered Wednesday by a monument to Vladimir Lenin, singing songs and waving flags in support of Russia. He thought the pro-Russian presence would be even bigger.

Shiroki doesn't mind people expressing their opinion, but the latest string of political developments has him depressed.

"It's happening so fast that I am kind of lost and disoriented by all of this," he said.

With tourism as a main industry in the city, several hotels are closing their doors, with at least one big hotel firing personnel, Shiroki said.

"Smaller hotels, they just closed because maybe they think there is no hope of having tourists in summer," he said. It's unclear if they will re-open. For now, the region is largely blocked off by troops and vacationers are likely making other plans in the face of obvious tensions.

Shiroki has not seen any of the presumably Russian soldiers in unmarked green uniforms, as his friends have encountered in other cities such as Simferopol. As a joke, people refer to these troops as "polite armed people," Shiroki said.

One of Shiroki's friends brought food to Ukrainian soldiers at a military base in Perevalnoe, near Simferopol, and told Shiroki he was stopped by soldiers about 20 times on the way. After answering many questions, he was able to deliver the food through a gate, but could not go inside.

If Crimea does become part of Russia, as Shiroki suspects it probably will, he will consider leaving the country. Shiroki has been studying Polish, so Poland could be an option, or perhaps elsewhere in Europe or the United States.

"If you dislike living in a place ruled by a power you dislike, maybe you should change your life," Shiroki said.

READ: In Crimea, worlds collide

READ: Ukraine PM Yatsenyuk: Crimea 'was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine'

CNN's Chelsea J. Carter. Laura Smith-Spark and Michael Holmes contributed to this report. Diana Magnay reported from Simferopol and Ben Wedeman reported from Sevastopol in Ukraine.

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