Crimea Digs In Against Ukraine's Western Drift

FEODOSIYA, Ukraine — Ordinarily, June is the month when the tourists flock here from chillier points north, when families move into their storage rooms and stand at the train station holding "for rent" signs to let their apartments.

Feodosiya Bay

The rocky sand beach becomes dotted with jumbo bottles of Russian beer and plump, sunburned babushkas in swimsuits.

This spring, though, Ukraine's balmy Crimean Peninsula has seen more protest flags than beach umbrellas.

Arguments over preservation of the Russian language, protests by Tatars over land rights and reparations that blocked a highway, anti-NATO demonstrations at the port, and a tense showdown between Muslims and Christians over a statue of St. Andrew have cast a shadow over the debut of the tourist season, which has barely begun.

This week, the Crimean legislature voted against the continuing presence of President Viktor Yushchenko's representative in the autonomous region, terming it "inadmissible."

The move was a further sign, if any more were needed, of the monumental job Ukraine's leader faces in uniting a nation that in many ways remains as divided as it was when the Orange Revolution propelled him to power in early 2005.

As lawmakers in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, announced Wednesday that they would need another week to try to build a coalition capable of naming a prime minister, speaker and Cabinet, more than 200 protesters marched through this historic old town on the Black Sea, vowing to oppose Yushchenko's plans to steer Ukraine toward NATO and the West and away from Russia.

"The truth is that an overwhelming majority of people residing in Crimea sympathize more with Russia than with Ukraine," said Sergei Tsekov, deputy speaker of the Crimean parliament. "I can tell you that the situation here is heated. The protests are not subsiding."

Few doubt that the anti-NATO demonstrations touched off by the arrival last month of 227 U.S. Marine reservists in preparation for a joint military exercise are motivated only in part by this region's deep-seated affinity with Russia.

More important, many analysts say, is the desire of several pro-Russia parties in Ukraine to influence the outcome of the coalition talks in Kiev. Yushchenko hopes to muster a majority among his Orange Revolution allies and others to form a government.

"I think our friends in Russia are using every tool they have to take a stand against the Euro-Atlantic priorities and strategy for Ukraine, but the arm of Russia is not the main thing in this situation," said Valery Chaly, an analyst with the Alexander Razumkov Center in Kiev. "More important is that the political elite in Ukraine itself is trying to agree on the main direction of our foreign and internal policies."

Much of the international attention over the last year has been focused on the feud between Yushchenko and his former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who was his partner in inspiring hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in 2004 to stand in the streets and demand a Europe-oriented, democratic future for Ukraine.

Now, Tymoshenko and Yushchenko are on the verge of reviving their alliance. But any so-called Orange coalition would largely leave out major regions of eastern and southern Ukraine, especially Crimea, which did not vote for Yushchenko and remain opposed to his plan to break free of Russia's lingering influence.

For decades, these regions have been dominated by Russian-speakers with close family ties to Russia. Citizens here have resisted not only moves toward integration with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but also efforts to widen the use of the Ukrainian language, now required in most government documents and court rulings.

"Yushchenko is the henchman of the Americans," said Alla Kiryanova, a resident of the Crimean town of Dzhankoy who was waving a protest flag Wednesday on the streets of Feodosiya. "He said the Russian language will have a special status here [in Crimea], but he's doing nothing.

All the TV programs are in Ukrainian now. You can't even read the directions on the medicine because it's in Ukrainian."

Wednesday's protests were directed at the weedy sanitarium where the Marines are staying. The national parliament remains unable to vote on authorizing the military exercises — or anything else — without a workable ruling coalition.

"American soldiers, we ask you: Do you want a new Vietnam here in Feodosiya? You will get it, and your mothers will cry!" a protester shouted in English, as loudspeakers blasted a throaty rendition of "Holy War," the song that sent Russian soldiers off to battle during World War II.

Conflicts over language and military policy are only part of what's been stirring up Crimea.

Equally turbulent have been faceoffs with the large population of Muslim Tatars who were deported from Crimea during the Stalin era but began returning in large numbers in the 1990s.

Since then, they have fought for reparations and the return of lands on which ethnic Russian and Ukrainian immigrants settled, and they have been among Yushchenko's strongest supporters in Crimea. Ethnic Russian residents warn darkly of "another Kosovo."

A Tatar convoy of 700 cars was prevented by village leaders from entering the small resort town of Partenit on May 18, the anniversary of the Tatar deportation, causing a traffic pileup.

The same week, hundreds of Tatars assembled near a square where Orthodox Christians were preparing to erect a 12-foot granite statue of St. Andrew the apostle, who is believed to have visited Feodosiya. A tense standoff ensued, as pro-Russia Cossacks and Ukrainians vowed to protect the site.

Faced with pleas from authorities for calm, the organizers agreed to remove a cross and move the statue to a less central location. "The cross was dismantled to the cries of 'Allahu akbar' [God is great]. It was very, very humiliating," said Valery Zamekhovsky, the sculptor.

They had no sooner taken the cross down than the Tatar demonstrators began attacking the cross-shaped stone foundation with hammers, he said.

Remzi Ilyasov, vice chairman of the Tatars' ruling council, said the group made up nearly 14% of the population in Crimea but had been shut out of the ruling presidium of parliament and had little hope of returning to its homes and that of its parents. Many, he said, have growing doubts about the ability of Yushchenko's team to fulfill the revolution's promises and find a path to unity for the nation.

"The country remains split, and the parliamentary election demonstrated that once again," he said.

"The main problem with Mr. Yushchenko is the people around him. His campaigners, his colleagues, his political partners to whom he entrusted the state — they have failed," he said. "The image of so much promise Ukraine had a year and a half ago, if it goes on like this, in six months this image will perish."

Source: LA Times


Fly said…
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