Why Crimea remains strongly Russian

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sat Sep 29 19:46:13 UTC 2007

from the September 28, 2007 edition -

Why Crimea, Soviet 'gift' to Ukraine, remains strongly Russian

The Massachusetts-sized 'country within a country' is 70 percent ethnic
Russian and home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet.
By Jeffrey White | Correspondent

Sevastopol, Ukraine

Vladimir Bazamyi, a bear of a man sitting behind a table of plumbing parts
in the central market, explains all. Sort of. "I was born in Ukraine, and
my first 19 years were spent there," says Mr.  Blazamyi. "But the rest of
the time, for 50 years, I have lived in Sevastopol." That Sevastopol is in
Ukraine is a mere technicality: This city of 380,000 is part of Crimea, an
autonomous republic nearly the size of Massachusetts, with its own
parliament, prime minister, and constitution.  Its population of 2 million
is 70 percent ethnic Russian. "Crimea is a country within a country, and
Sevastopol is a Russian city,"  Blazamyi says.

Crimea remains the match that could one day ignite the deep divisions
between western and eastern loyalties that have smoldered in Ukraine since
the Orange Revolution three years ago. As Ukrainians go to the polls
Sunday for emergency elections the result of bitter government infighting
some Crimeans doubt any government will prevail. "One Ukraine I think is
impossible," says Svetlanya Drotsevich, a managerial student. "Crimeans
are different. We don't think in the Ukrainian way. We think in the
Russian way."

The Soviet's 'gift' to Ukraine

In 1954, the USSR's Nikita Khrushchev handed the Crimea long a favorite
holiday spot for communist party brass over to the Ukrainian Soviet
Socialist Republic to mark the 300 anniversary of Russo-Ukrainian
unification. It was little more than a symbolic gesture until the Soviet
Union collapsed in 1991 and left Crimea a part of a newly independent
Ukraine. But for many Crimeans, their identity remains the same, and they
want politics to reflect that. "When I say that I am from Crimea, I belong
to the Russian-speaking population," says Alexander Kaminskyi, a
20-something speaking outside his family's convenience store. "I don't
consider myself Ukrainian. That's why we strive to become part of Russia."

Such sentiments complicate recent efforts by Washington and Brussels to
groom Ukraine for eventual European Union and NATO membership. "Washington
sees Ukraine very strategically," says Alexander Rahr, a Ukraine expert at
the German Council on Foreign Relations. "It's a bridge between two
continents, and it's needed for the Europeanization of Russia." Yet the
West's presence is seldom welcomed here. Last year, when Ukraine invited
the US Navy to visit the Crimean port of Feodosiya to participate in an
annual NATO exercise, violent protests erupted among locals and the
exercise was scrapped.

Black Sea Fleet headquartered here

Sevastopol itself has always been an important city for Russia, the site
of a bloody siege during the Crimean War and, more recently, one of 12
so-called "Hero" cities in the former Soviet Union singled out for its
bravery in the face of the Nazi invasion during World War II. Today, its
role as the headquarters for Russia's Black Sea Fleet is a major source of
pride for people here. Dozens of ships and some 14,000 Russian naval
officers are stationed in barracks around Sevastopol's sweeping harbor.

But that presence has helped to keep tensions between Kiev and Crimea
high. Russia pays nearly $100 million in rent annually to Ukraine for the
fleet. Kiev uses that money to pay off its sizable debts to Russia.
Crimean authorities complain that little goes to benefit regional programs
and infrastructure. (Russia annually gives money $10 million last year to
cities like Sevastopol for social programs.) There are regular accusations
from Kiev of Russian meddling in the Crimea, and both sides continue to
face off about the ownership of several strategic lighthouses along the
Crimean coast.

Ukraine says it will not extend the Black Sea Fleet's lease, scheduled to
expire in 2017. Some fear that a greater wave of Russian nationalism could
surface here if the fleet is kicked out of Crimea. "As long as the Russian
fleet is stationed in Sevastopol, the Crimea will be stable and calm,"
Transport Minister Mykola Rudkovsky told a Crimean TV channel recently,
according to the Interfax news agency. "As soon as the fleet leaves,
things we did not expect to happen will begin to happen."

Ethnic division: 'Politicians gave us this concept'

Yet Crimeans often raise more fundamental concerns. The Russian language
has no status here, and Russian schools continue to close. Jobs are scarce
in a region dependent almost entirely on tourism. In this week's election,
only Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich's Regions Party is promising
something likely to resonate with Crimeans: A vow to make Russian the
country's second official language. "Both political sides in this election
probably haven't paid enough attention to Crimean issues," says a western
diplomat in Kiev.

Sergei Malyshkin doesn't care about politics. Born in southern Russia, Mr.
Malyshkin's family eventually settled just outside Kiev. Over lunch one
day, he talks of moving to Sevastopol four years ago. He says he feels at
home here among people who share a similar upbringing. When the world
watched Ukraine's Orange Revolution unfold in November 2004, few here made
the 20-hour trip to stand in Kiev's Independence Square. Alla Fateeva, an
elderly resident, says it's only since then that people have started
caring about different ethnicities. "Before the Orange Revolution, we
never felt that people were Ukrainian or Georgian or Russian. We are all
Slavic people," says Ms. Fateeva. "The politicians gave this concept to
us, to pay attention to the differences among us."



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