Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Crimea, Soviet 'Gift' to Ukraine, Remains Strongly Russian

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Crimea, Soviet 'Gift' to Ukraine, Remains Strongly Russian

Article excerpt

At this Black Sea port in southern Ukraine, the train station loudspeakers blare Russian patriotic songs, TVs are tuned to Russian stations, and Lenin is perched above it all, pointing out across the rooftops.

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. …

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