Ethnic and Cultural Divisions Haunt Ukraine

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 24 16:51:41 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, March 24, 2006

Ethnic and Cultural Divisions Haunt Ukraine Before Vote


SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine There are few obstacles to speaking Russian here in
Crimea since, after all, practically everyone speaks it at home, at
school, at work. Still there are those who complain that the language is
under assault, that the courts issue rulings in Ukrainian, that Russian
classics are now taught in schools as "foreign" literature, that a
repressive government in the capital, Kiev, is bent on imposing a
nationalistic identity on a place that was part of Russia until Nikita S.
Khrushchev decreed otherwise in 1954 (and, to some here, should be again).
"Whatever we receive from Kiev is all in Ukrainian!" Yevgeny G. Bubnov, a
member of Crimea's regional Parliament, complained in an interview as he
explained why he sponsored a proposal to hold a referendum on whether to
elevate Russian to official status in a country where, constitutionally,
Ukrainian is the language of the land.

The federal government fiercely opposed Mr. Bubnov's proposal and
ultimately rejected it. But the constitutional clash it threatened to
create highlighted the stark ethnic and cultural divisions that continue
to haunt Ukraine with the approach of the March 26 parliamentary elections
the first since the Orange Revolution a little more than a year ago. The
referendum even raised questions about the status of Crimea itself a lush
peninsula of seaside resorts, vineyards and a largely Russian populace,
whose political, economic and cultural affiliations are closer to Moscow
than to Kiev. And that, its critics say, was exactly the point.

"It is playing with the sentiments of the population that is still
nostalgic for Soviet times, those who reacted painfully to the breakup of
the Soviet Union," said Vladimir B. Shklar, the Crimean leader of Our
Ukraine, the political party of the country's president, Viktor A.
Yushchenko. The parliamentary elections are the first electoral test of
Mr. Yushchenko's policies since he took office in January 2005, after mass
protests against a fraudulent presidential election. According to the
polls, at least, he is faring badly, with his bloc trailing the party led
by the man he defeated, Viktor F. Yanukovich. As in the presidential race,
the main issues revolve around Russia, namely Ukraine's relations to
Russia, its larger neighbor. Nowhere are those issues more charged than in
Crimea, home not only to a majority of ethnic Russians but also to
Russia's Black Sea Fleet, a source of tensions for nearly a decade.

As the election campaign began in earnest in January, a group of young
people gathered with shovels on the isthmus that connects Crimea to the
mainland to dig a symbolic trench. Few openly call for separatism, which
is a federal crime, but several smaller parties and blocs are running on
platforms calling for closer cooperation with Russia and even
reunification. One party based in Crimea even calls itself the Party of
Putin's Politics.  Its billboards show President Vladimir V. Putin's
steely eyes fixed on the rugged Crimean landscape, promising a united
future. Mikhail Y. Pushia stood on a square the other day in Sevastopol,
the deep-water port city on Crimea's southern bulge, campaigning for
Natalia M. Vitrenko, the leader of a fiercely anti-American and
anti-European bloc of parties that advocate a new union among the Slavic
nations of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

With a union, he said, "all the problems would be solved." The problems
between Russia and Ukraine, of course, are considerable, largely because
the ties that once united them are now a source of tension. A New Year's
dispute over the price of Russian natural gas, on which Ukraine is heavily
dependent, prompted Russia to shut down supplies briefly, infuriating many
Ukrainians. Mr. Yushchenko's deal with Mr. Putin to end the crisis with a
complicated pricing system and a murky trading company proved equally
unpopular, however. Mr. Yanukovich argues that he could have negotiated
lower prices because of his friendly relations with Russia. In the wake of
the gas dispute, Ukraine responded with threats to charge higher rent for
the base in Sevastopol that houses the Black Sea Fleet's dozens of ships
and 14,000 sailors under a lease set to expire in 2017.  Russia now pays
roughly $98 million a year; some Ukrainian officials have suggested that
billions would be more appropriate.

In January, Ukraine occupied one of the fleet's lighthouses in Yalta,
saying Russia was using it illegally, provoking a war of words and a new
round of negotiations to defuse the confrontation. When student protesters
began demonstrating at eight other lighthouses, the fleet bolstered
security around them. Russia's defense minister, Sergei B. Ivanov, warned
that revising the terms of the lease would reopen a separate treaty that
fixed the borders, which is what many here say they would like to see
happen. "This is a Russian city," said Aleksandr N. Mironov, an ethnic
Russian who settled in Sevastopol after serving in the Soviet border

Mr. Yanukovich's Party of Regions does not openly endorse such sentiments,
but he has promised to make Russian a second official language and to
improve economic and political relations with Russia, which have been
strained since Mr. Yushchenko took office. Mr. Yushchenko's supporters say
that the language issue and the tensions over the naval base have been
exaggerated with the intent to divide Ukrainians and ethnic Russians, who
account for roughly two-thirds of Crimea's nearly two million people, as
well as large majorities in the eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk and
Lugansk. Another predominately Russian city, Kharkiv, voted on March 6 to
adopt Russian as a second official language in municipal affairs.

Khrushchev's decision to cede Crimea to Ukraine mattered little during
Soviet times, but immensely after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and
internal administrative borders became international boundaries. It was
not until 1997 that Russia and Ukraine reached agreement on how to divide
the fleet and to accept the current borders. Despite impassioned oratory
on each side, the prospects of an open conflict appear slight. But Mr.
Yushchenko's supporters warn that Russia continues to interfere in
Ukrainian politics on the hope that a friendlier government led by Mr.
Yanukovich as a newly empowered prime minister could result in better
terms for the fleet and for the Russians living here. "This is not going
to be solved until after the election," a Russian naval officer in
Sevastopol said in an interview, speaking on condition of anonymity
because he was not authorized to comment on what has become a diplomatic

Petro O. Poroshenko, a tycoon closely allied with Mr. Yushchenko,
complained recently that proponents of the language referendum were trying
to turn Crimea into a client state of Russia. "Look what happened in
Abkhazia with Russian support," Mr. Poroshenko said, referring to the
Black Sea region in Georgia that became a separatist enclave with Russian
help after a bloody war in the early 1990's. "The land is almost as
beautiful as the Crimea, and they have hundreds of thousands of refugees.
There is no development." Although the language issue has been defused for
now, it has resonated deeply in Crimea, hardening support for Mr.
Yanukovich, who won 81 percent of the vote here in the repeated second
round of the disputed 2004 presidential race, and fanning resentments
against Kiev. The election, warned Vasily A. Kiselyov, the acting chairman
of Crimea's Parliament and a Yanukovich stalwart, could lead to a new wave
of large street protests, even tent camps, only this time against Mr.
Yushchenko's government.
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

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