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.

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.

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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