No love for NATO in Ukraine's pro-Russian enclave
Monday, 26 May 2008


Reuters, Sevastopol, Ukraine - Ukraine's pro-Western leaders hope to join NATO but the people of this Black Sea port, where Russian warships are moored at the quayside, want no part of it.

"I just can't imagine that the boots of a NATO soldier may tread on this sacred land one day," said Vladimir, an 82-year-old pensioner, as he walked along the quay.

"We want no NATO here," he said, his World War Two medals jangling on his chest. "This would mean to betray Russia."

Sevastopol is in Ukraine but a majority of its residents are ethnic Russians and most regard it as a Russian town -- at least in terms of history, culture and emotion.

That sentiment is reinforced by the presence here of the Russian navy's Black Sea fleet, and the fact that until 1954 the Crimea region that includes Sevastopol was part of Russia.

"Imagine a NATO base in Sevastopol!" Vladimir Putin, then Russian president, said with an incredulous tone earlier this year after talks with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

Ukraine says that cannot happen because its constitution bars the presence on its territory of any foreign bases other than the Russian Black Sea fleet.

At a summit in Bucharest in April, NATO states agreed that Ukraine and Georgia could eventually join the Western military alliance, though they did not give a timetable.

That angered Russia, which sees further NATO enlargement as a threat to its security and a new encroachment into its traditional sphere of influence.

This month Sevastopol was again at the focus of the tension.

Ukraine barred influential Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov from entering the country after a speech in the port in which he said Russia should take it back from Ukraine. Moscow responded by blocking a deputy Ukrainian minister from entering Russia.

RUSSIAN FLAGS

Ukrainian flags fly over public buildings and official signs are in Ukrainian language.

But these are swamped by a sea of Russian tricolor flags flying from the Black Sea fleet headquarters, by white-and-blue St Andrew's flags flying from Russian warships and by the Soviet military pennants sold in local shops.

Blue tents scattered around the town collect signatures for a referendum to have the Russian fleet kept here permanently. Moscow's $93-million-a-year lease runs out in 2017.

"We won't give up our Sevastopol!" thousands of people chanted as they listened to Luzhkov address a rally to mark the 225th anniversary of the creation of the Black Sea fleet.

The opposition in Sevastopol -- as well as large swathes of Ukraine's Russian-speaking east and south -- to NATO membership is more than a domestic problem for Yushchenko.

Polls show only a third of Ukraine's population favors joining the alliance, and that split makes some NATO member states in Europe skeptical about bringing in Ukraine.

The Crimean peninsula was a part of the Russian republic of the Soviet Union until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev signed it over to the Ukrainian republic as a "token of brotherly love".

That mattered little when both republics were part of the Soviet Union, but when Ukraine gained independence in 1991 it became a ticking timebomb.

Through the 1990s, as the new Ukrainian state established its credentials, Crimea was gripped by periodic outbursts of pro-Russian sentiment but has since been generally calm.

War veteran Vladimir, who refused to give his family name, said he remembered the contribution the United States made during World War Two, supplying tinned meat and vehicles to the Soviet war effort.

"Yes, they were good allies during that war," he said. "But today they have turned their bayonets against us."
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