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Ukraine-Russia Tensions Evident in Crimea

President Viktor Yushchenko, in Sevastopol for a Ukrainian military celebration in July, is running for reelection. Russia is building pressure for his defeat.
President Viktor Yushchenko, in Sevastopol for a Ukrainian military celebration in July, is running for reelection. Russia is building pressure for his defeat. (By Sergei Chuzavkov -- Associated Press)
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While Kiev is playing identity politics, he argued, Moscow has been investing in Sevastopol, building schools, apartments and pools, repairing monuments and even opening a branch of Moscow State University.

The result has been a sharp shift in Crimean attitudes. In 2006, about 74 percent of Crimean residents regarded Ukraine as their motherland, but by last year, that figure had fallen to 40 percent, according to a survey by the Razumkov Center, a top research institute in Kiev.

Crimea became part of the Russian empire in 1783 after a long period of rule by Crimean Tatars, an indigenous Turkic people. During World War II, Germany captured the peninsula. After the war, the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin accused the Tatars of Nazi collaboration and ordered their mass deportation. The Communists then sought to resettle the peninsula with politically reliable families, mostly Russians with ties to the military or the party apparatus.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, these people suddenly found themselves living in Ukraine instead of Russia, because Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had transferred Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 in a move that had little impact at the time.

Today, about 60 percent of the region's 2.3 million residents are Russian and 25 percent are Ukrainian. But the two ethnic groups are thoroughly intertwined. Opinion polls show majorities of both want the Black Sea Fleet to stay and support reunification with Russia, though there is similar support for greater autonomy for Crimea within Ukraine.

Crimean Tatars, who were allowed to return in the 1980s, make up about 10 percent of the population and are largely opposed to a return to Russian rule.

Refat Chubarov, a leader of the main Crimean Tatar political organization, said Russian media have vilified his people as criminals, playing on fears of Islam and their efforts to reclaim lost homes. But even among the Tatars, frustration with Kiev is rising.

"We are the strongest supporters of Ukrainian sovereignty in Crimea," Chubarov said. "But the disappointment is growing because the authorities have not done enough to provide land and other compensation to returning families."

Volodymyr Pritula, a veteran journalist and political analyst in Crimea, said the Kremlin has been trying to provoke ethnic conflict in the region, both to undermine the Ukrainian government and provide an excuse for intervention.

Three years ago, Vladimir Putin, then Russia's president, offered to help resolve tensions in Crimea after a clash between Russians and Tatars and suggested that the Russian fleet should stay to "guarantee stability," Pritula noted.

In recent months, he added, the Kremlin has stepped up its activities, with Russian nationalist groups staging protests on Ukrainian holidays and media outlets resuming the attacks on Tatars after a pause last year.

Emotions have been running high since Russia's war last year with another pro-Western neighbor, Georgia. The Black Sea Fleet participated in the conflict, and Ukrainian officials infuriated Russia by suggesting its ships might not be allowed to return to Sevastopol.

Tensions flared again this summer when Ukrainian police stopped Russian trucks three times for transporting missiles in Sevastopol without advance notice. Then came the episode with the bailiffs at Kherson Lighthouse, one of dozens of navigational markers along the Crimean coast that both Ukraine and the Russian fleet claim to own.

Judges have tried to order the fleet to hand over various facilities before, with the Russians routinely refusing and bailiffs departing without incident. But this time, the fleet accused Ukraine of "penetrating the territory of a Russian military unit" and warned of "possible tragic consequences to such actions."

Vladimir Kazarin, the city's deputy mayor, said the bailiffs stepped past a gate because no sentries were posted but quickly found the commanding officer, who asked them to wait while he sought instructions. Five minutes later, he returned with the soldiers who detained the bailiffs.

"Relations with the fleet have generally been good," Kazarin said. "But this just shows that people in Moscow are trying to find any excuse for conflict."

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