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Conflict

Crimean activist agitates for change in Kyiv

Crimean native Viktor Neganov organized pro-Europe protests even before they took off on Kyiv's Maidan Square. Then Russian troops invaded, spelling an end to his Sevastopol protests and his life in his hometown.

With his scruffy beard and intense stare, Viktor Neganov - a former-IT-specialist-turned-activist - doesn't really stand out from the crowd of protesters on Maidan Square. But 26-year old's journey to get there makes him quite different from the other Ukrainians milling about in central Kyiv.

Last November, when activists in the capital first began protesting against the policies of then-president Viktor Yanukovych at Kyiv's Independence Square, Neganov was running his own protests on the Crimean Peninsula.

Some 600 kilometers (370 miles) south of the capital, Neganov and his fellow activists took to the streets of Sevastopol, a city of 340,000. The 100 or so people involved spoke out against the president and corruption.

"We saw that this Yanukovych regime was not helping and was not looking and was not hearing us," Neganov told DW. The activists were talking, he said, but they weren't getting any results. "So when Maidan starts, we understood this is our chance to change the country," Neganov said.

But they didn't encounter much support on the streets of Crimea, Neganov said. People in Sevastopol are basically Russian, with Russian roots from the former USSR, he explained. Neganov says the Soviet mentality carries on in the minds of many on the peninsula.

"For many years, the government has been telling them what they should do," Neganov said. A shift to a more democratic mentality will take time - more than the 20-some years that have passed since the fall of the USSR, Neganov adds.

People in Crimea, he says, would protest for their "bread and butter" - but not for human rights. "They don't use these rights," he says.

Neganov and his fellow activists took to the streets every Sunday in pro-democracy protests in favor of European integration. It didn't take long before a pro-Russian counter-protest tried to get in the way.

Viktor Neganov speaking at a protest in Sevastopol

Neganov led pro-Ukraine protests in Sevastopol

The pro-Russians used noise devices to drown out the European-leaning Crimeans. Neganov said the agitators included Russian spies and Russian troops pretending to be local civilians. The pro-Russian crowds started getting violent towards Neganov's group of protesters in December.

Things in Kyiv came to a head as well - scores of people, most of them protestors, were killed by riot police. President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. And the world's focus shifted to Crimea.

Neganov went to a central square in the Crimean city of Sevastopol to publicly ask the deputy mayor whether he supported the area's separation from Ukraine. He didn't get an answer.

Instead, he said, the crowd of about 100 people started talking to him and became violent. "It was 10 or 20 people trying to punch from different angles. From some I could protect myself and from others, I couldn't," Neganov said. "I got different punches from my head from different angles, I fell down, and I lost consciousness," he said.

He was taken by ambulance to a hospital and eventually recovered.

Russian invasion

Shortly thereafter, Russian troops, not bearing insignia, began appearing on the streets of Crimea, taking over Ukrainian government buildings, transportation hubs and military bases. Neganov recognized then that he was in danger of being targeted by the authorities.

He had been getting death threats from pro-Russian activists, he said. "[They said] they could break my legs, hands. They knew where I lived," Neganov says. He decided it was time to flee.

A Russian national flag at a checkpoint outside Sevastopol (Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov)

Russian forces set up checkpoints along numerous roads in Crimea

Though pro-Russian "self-defense" forces and Russian troops had set up checkpoints on the roads entering and exiting Crimea, Neganov made it safely to Kyiv by train. But he soon realized things were not going to get better back in his homeland.

Getting home to collect his things was a greater challenge. Bound for Sevastopol, Neganov hid from self-defense forces checking each compartment on his train. He managed to leave the train yard without being spotted and quickly cleared out his things from his home. A friend drove him through the checkpoints out of Sevastopol as he hid in the backseat and he got through the border into Ukraine unharmed.

'Changing history'

His dramatic journey only underlined Neganov's conviction as to where fault lies: He views Russia as the enemy of Ukraine.

"They are enemies of the whole democratic world," Neganov says, describing Russia as an aggressor. He's disappointed by what he sees as a lack of political support from the United States and the European Union.

If the Russians invade, he says he'll take up arms to fight for his country. But Neganov is hoping for peace. For now, he's working as a regional advisor to Ukraine's new interior minister, agitating for change in his country within the new government.

Protesters sing the Ukrainian national anthem as they hold a giant Ukrainian and Crimean flag during a rally on Independence Square in Kiev on March 23, 2014 (Photo: Sergei Supinsky)

The situation in Kyiv has stabilized somewhat

And he lives in Kyiv - far from home. Here, in the heart of the city, he sits and talks about Maidan - where the protest movement that changed his life got its start.

"People here, they showed the world that they could change the country, the regime of Yanukovych, change the dictatorship here," Neganov says. "We are the example of how peaceful protests could change the history of the country."

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