WORLD

A CRIMEAN CRISIS

THE BLACK SEA PENINSULA IS THE LATEST FLASH POINT IN THE FORMER SOVIET UNION

MALCOLM GRAY May 25 1992
WORLD

A CRIMEAN CRISIS

THE BLACK SEA PENINSULA IS THE LATEST FLASH POINT IN THE FORMER SOVIET UNION

MALCOLM GRAY May 25 1992

A CRIMEAN CRISIS

THE BLACK SEA PENINSULA IS THE LATEST FLASH POINT IN THE FORMER SOVIET UNION

WORLD

During their cool, rainy springs, many Russians combat bad-weather blues by planning summer vacations to na yug—the south. For Russia’s rulers, from Czar Nicholas II to former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, the south has meant holidays on the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, a sun-blessed paradise of palm trees, vineyards and warm-water beaches. But summer in Crimea threatens to be hot and troubled this year. The mountainous region, formerly part of Russia but given to Ukraine by the Kremlin in 1954, is now at the centre of a tense dispute between Russian and Ukrainian nationalists. Earlier this month, Crimea’s own regional parliament made a bid for more autonomy from the Ukrainian government by passing a vaguely worded declaration of independence. And the legislators pledged to allow Crimea’s citizens, 70 per cent of whom are ethnic Russians, to vote on that decision in a referendum next Aug. 2.

Politicians in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev reacted swiftly to what they clearly saw as a threat to their young country’s territorial in-

tegrity. Last week, they suspended the Crimean declaration, cancelled the referendum and gave the regional parliament one week to fall into line. But even those actions stopped short of demands by Ukrainian nationalists that President Leonid Kravchuk impose direct rule on Crimea’s 2.7 million people. And as rumors persisted that Kravchuk would dissolve the Crimean parliament and rule the region directly from Kiev, Russian legislators in turn

warned that such a move could prompt retaliation. They threatened to annul the Soviet decree that originally transferred Crimea to Ukrainian jurisdiction.

The furor over Crimea was the latest—and perhaps gravest—flash point to emerge between Russia and Ukraine. Since last December’s collapse of the Soviet Union, the two powerful Slavic neighbors have been at odds over such issues as joint monetary policy, the disposition of nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory and control over the 373 ships of the Black Sea Fleet, many of them based at the strategic Crimean port of Sevastopol. Kravchuk stressed that he remained ready to discuss the worsening Crimean problem with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. But he did not bother to conceal his belief—widely shared in Ukraine—that Moscow refuses to treat Kiev as an equal. Said Kravchuk: “Those negotiations should be done on a state level—even though sometimes we are not viewed as a state by Russia.”

Certainly, deteriorating relations between Russia and Ukraine deepened the growing

pessimism about the continued survival of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose association of 11 former Soviet republics that has succeeded the U.S.S.R. While Yeltsin and five other CIS leaders held a regular summit meeting in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent last week, the roll call of presidential absentees starkly underlined the commonwealth’s diminishing role as a forum for co-operation.

Kravchuk, a commonwealth founder and its second most powerful leader after Yeltsin, was among the missing. Also absent were the leaders of Moldova, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan, all of whom are also facing ethnic or political conflicts within their republics.

Officially, Kravchuk said that he was unable to travel to Uzbekistan because of a scheduled meeting with Finnish President Mauno Koivisto. But Ukrainian officials in Kiev offered a blunter explanation for the president’s absence: Kravchuk has decided that the commonwealth is little more than a front for Russian imperialism.

For his part, Yeltsin generated controversy of another sort: upon landing in Tashkent, he seemed to many eyewitnesses to be extremely high-spirited after a fourhour flight, reviving criticism about his admitted penchant for drinking heavily when he is under pressure.

Meanwhile, Kravchuk’s aides confirmed that he was unwilling to leave Kiev as long as Ukraine and Russia remained at odds over Crimea. The territorial dispute is, in large part, one of the Soviet empire’s poisonous bequests to its successor states. When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to Kiev in 1954 as an anniversary present marking 300 years of union between Ukraine and Russia, the shift in jurisdiction made little difference to the region. At the time, the Kremlin’s rule was supreme, and the move even had a certain administrative logic because Crimea, physically separated from the Russian mainland, has its only land border with Ukraine.

But with Ukraine now an independent state, many Russians and top government officials have openly mourned their country’s loss of a region that Catherine the Great wrested from

“These political games can lead to bloodshed.”

—IGOR KASATONOV, CIS admiral of the fleet

Our task is to take what belongs to us.

—BORIS KOZHIN, commander of Ukrainian navy

the Turks in 1783. Last April, in fact, the Russian parliament passed a motion urging Ukraine to reconsider Khrushchev’s whimsical transfer of Crimea. And at about the same time, Russian Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi was on a visit to Sevastopol, where he put the matter more bluntly. “Common sense,” declared Rutskoi, “says that Crimea should be a part of Russia.”

Yeltsin, in public at least, has taken a milder approach than that of his outspoken deputy. But at several points in his political struggle with Kravchuk, the Russian leader has clearly indicated his desire that the Black Sea Fleet, a naval force that Catherine the Great founded, should remain in the hands of Russia— or at least under commong wealth control centred in § Moscow.

^ The tension generated by I the tug of war between Rus| sia and Ukraine is palpably o evident in Sevastopol, a city of tree-lined streets and whitewashed buildings that is the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet. There, many of the 70,000 officers and sailors who serve in the largest warm-water CIS fleet have had to endure demands that they swear oaths of loyalty to both Ukraine and the commonwealth. Most chose to stay exclusively under CIS command. Similarly, another flurry of orders from Kiev and Moscow left the warships’ crews uncertain about whether to fly Ukraine’s yellow-and-blue flag or the St. Andrew’s cross, the naval ensign of czarist Russia. In the end, local commanders simply dodged the issue and continued flying the red-starred flag of the former Soviet navy.

Yeltsin and Kravchuk have stopped that confusing clash of decrees, but there has been little progress in negotiations over the fleet’s fate. As a result, Sevastopol has continued to be the setting for a so-called battle of the admirals. That curious contest pits Igor Kasatonov, the 52-yearold CIS admiral of the fleet, against Boris Kozhin, nine years his junior. Kozhin, a rear admiral who formerly served under Kasatonov, jumped ship in April in order to become commander of the Ukrainian navy—a force that so far has no ships.

So far, it is the commonwealth’s Kasatonov,

an experienced and highly respected naval strategist with a football lineman’s build and a gruff voice, who retains control of the Black Sea Fleet. “The most important thing is that our officers and sailors understand that these political games can lead to bloodshed,” he said.

By contrast, Kozhin has few tangible assets beyond a 20-member staff and temporary headquarters in a school for petty officers. Like Kasatonov, he is an ethnic Russian. But Kozhin’s dashing good looks and Clark Gable moustache give him a commander’s bearing, as if Hollywood had met Ukraine’s request for an admiral.

Standing outside his officers school and speaking above the harsh cries of several peacocks wandering about the campus grounds, Kozhin confidently predicted that he would eventually command a navy that was strong enough to defend Ukraine and its economic interests. “Our main task is not to divide the fleet, but simply to take what belongs to Ukraine,” he said.

“That means we should get that part of the fleet that is based here.”

But in Crimea, supporters

of the region’s independence -

drive say that their ultimate objective is to become independent of both Russia and Ukraine. According to Vladimir Klychnikov, the chairman of the Republican Movement of Crimea, after a successful break with Ukraine the peninsula would become a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States. In the

first step towards that goal, Klychnikov’s 1,500member organization had no difficulty in collecting 250,000 signatures from local voters— 70,000 more than the minimum number needed to place the independence referendum before the Crimean electorate. But even before Kiev

cancelled that Aug. 2 ballot, the 28-year-old Klychnikov candidly revealed his movement’s political sympathies. In Simferopol, Crimea’s capital and a sprawling industrial centre located 75 km inland, Klychnikov told Maclean’s. “We

want to join the CIS. But if the commonwealth has the same fate as the Soviet Union, then

we would prefer to be part of Russia.”

In Ukraine, meanwhile, leaders of the republic’s influential nationalist group Rukh (Movement) argue that the drive for Crimean independence is simply the latest Russian attempt to grab Ukrainian territory. And, they add, while the Soviet empire’s internal borders may have been drawn and redrawn at the Kremlin’s command, tampering with that arbitrary map again could spark a flood of potentially explosive land claims between former Soviet republics.

Few observers expect the differences over the Crimea or the Black Sea Fleet to lead to a military clash between Russia and Ukraine. Even the rival admirals, still waiting for a political decision that will determine the size of their commands, share that opinion. “I am 100 per cent sure that this problem will be reto solved peacefully,” said

Ukraine’s Kozhin. But travel-

ling east from Sevastopol, $ further along the wild and o beautiful Crimean coastline § at Foros, an airy three-storey 5 summerhouse offers silent 5 testimony to the swiftness

and unpredictable nature of events in the former Soviet Union. It was in that dacha nine months ago that Soviet leader Gorbachev, holidaying in Crimea, became a captive during the attempted coup that ultimately destroyed the old Soviet Union.

MALCOLM GRAY in Simferopol

JOURNEY TO THE VALLEY OF DEATH

Cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, cannon in front of them, volleyed and thundered....

—from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade ”

There were only 40 in the group this time, well short of the 500 or more daring souls immortalized by Tennyson. But earlier this month, a busload of mostly British military enthusiasts deftly traversed the dry hills and valleys of western Crimea—and postSoviet bureaucracy—to visit the “valley of death.” It was there that Britain’s Light Brigade cavalry rode into history in 1854 during the Crimean War’s Battle of Balaklava. They were part of an Anglo-French invasion force that tried to seize the home port of Russia's Black Sea Fleet at Sevasto-

pol, 13 km to the north. The attack flowed from an ambiguously written order that led the brigade to mount a stirring, but suicidal, charge and withdrawal through a gauntlet of Russian artillery. Only 195 soldiers survived the cannon fire from the slopes of the valley to fight again. Said bus tour leader Valmai Holt: “Balaklava is a battle that has always gripped the imagination of the British people.”

The presence of the chartered red Intourist bus in the valley, with its neatly lettered sign reading, “Major and Mrs. Holt’s Battlefield Tours Ltd.,” represented a triumph of persistence for the travel company based in Kent, England. Holt and her husband, Tonie, a former British army officer, spent much of the past year getting official clearance to conduct an eight-day tour of Crimean War sites. Since February, 1945, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill squeezed in a quick trip to the historic battlefields after a conference of Allied powers in Yalta, 86 km to the east, the presence of the Black Sea Fleet has closed the region to almost all visitors.

But in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, there are clear signs that the veil of military secrecy is lifting. In the town of Balaklava itself, perched like a Newfoundland outport between the encroaching mountains, Westerners who gain access to the area can freely stroll along the shores of the harbor that sheltered the British fleet during the Crimean War. Some recent visitors even photographed the black bulk of a new, experimental Soviet submarine—all under the benign gaze of sailors on sentry duty.

For history buffs, there are other rewards in being among the first tourists to visit the barely disturbed battlefield. When the Holts’ group gathered in a vineyard to lay a wreath of red tulips before a crumbling obelisk honoring Britain’s Crimean War dead, they anchored the flowers with a rusted shell fragment uncovered from the freshly turned soil.

M. G.