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Russia: Analyst Ponders Reasons For Luzhkov's Crimea Comments

  • Don Hill

Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, says Crimea rightfully should be part of Russia and not Ukraine. He has said this before, but this time he said it in Ukraine during Russian Navy Day ceremonies attended by the presidents of both Ukraine and Russia. Our correspondent Don Hill says a minor international diplomatic incident has resulted.

Prague, 2 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is reputed to exert virtually total control over the business of the city of Moscow. He does not smoke. He does not drink. Most people who know him believe that he does very little without sound reason.

So he caused an unusual stir when he made a provocative remark last Sunday (29 July), the day that Russian and Ukrainian presidents Vladimir Putin and Leonid Kuchma had gathered in Ukraine's Crimea to celebrate Russian Navy Day.

Luzhkov, also in Crimea, told reporters that Ukraine does not have a legitimate claim to the republic. As he put it: "I believe that Crimea is Russian land. It has always been Russian and never belonged to Ukraine."

Mark Katz is professor of government and politics at George Mason University near Washington. He is the author, among other books, of "Reflections on Revolution," an examination of revolution in the post-Cold War era. He has two hypotheses about Luzhkov's intent -- one concerning another controversial region and the other Luzhkov's own political ambitions.

Katz's first thought is that Luzhkov might be trying to draw a comparison between Crimea -- where many of the republic's Russian-speaking residents still desire to be part of Russia -- and breakaway Chechnya, where the majority of citizens want independence. Katz says in this respect, Luzhkov may be preparing Russians for the eventual loss of Chechnya.

"If Crimea can go back to Russia because the majority of the [Crimean] population might want that, well then why can't Chechnya leave Russia because the majority of the [Chechen] population wants that?"

But if preparing Russia for a Chechen secession was not Luzhkov's motive, Katz believes the mayor's remarks could have been simply an unhappy error.

"If this is not his intention, then it is really sad and it is, in fact, self-defeating. Because although the Russians may not see the connection between these two things, everyone else does -- especially the Chechens."

Another possibility, Katz says, is that Luzhkov merely is showing himself to be the political animal he is known to be.

"He may have decided that, you know, nationalism is the key to political success. You know, he sees the rise of Putin and other people like this, so he wants to protect his flank." Crimea is an autonomous republic that became a part of Ukraine almost casually. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in the 1950s. As Katz says, "it was a cost-free gift, since Ukraine then was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union anyway."

"Back then it simply didn't matter. It was just a question of administrative convenience."

But it evidently matters now. The republic occupies the entire Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea, and is a valuable part of Ukraine. Russian-Ukrainian relations were strained for a time after Ukraine became independent in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As did the other former Soviet republics, Ukraine kept the borders it had during its last days in the USSR.

In the past year, Kuchma has been wavering between taking his country further toward the west, to the EU and NATO, or toward Russia and the east. Russian President Putin's joining Kuchma last weekend in the Crimean Black Sea port of Sevastopol was described by the Associated Press as a "display of cordial ties."

Luzhkov had made possessive remarks about Crimea a number of times before, but his comment Sunday evidently came across as particularly wounding. Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Serhiy Borodenkov told a news conference the following day that he found Luzhkov's statement strange.

"It looks strange and sad that the mayor of Moscow, as we can see, knows so little about modern political geography. It is strange that he would say this at this time, when the political questions between our two countries are fully decided and fixed between us in appropriate documents. We would like Russia to explain this behavior of a person who holds a high position."

Luzhkov has been the mayor of Moscow since 1992. The son of a carpenter, he was a plastic materials researcher and then an agro-chemist. He joined the Moscow City Council as deputy chairman in 1987.

He has a reputation for getting things done. He has directed substantial repairs to the Moscow infrastructure and lent momentum to the restoration of famous buildings and churches. He supported Boris Yeltsin both during the failed August 1991 communist coup attempt and the 1993 uprising. In return, Yeltsin granted him broad powers beyond federal control and exempted the city from Russia's privatization program.

But Luzkhov's relationship with the Kremlin has grown rockier in recent years. Luzhkov was one of the challengers to Putin in last year's presidential election and he has made no secret of his ambition one day to rule all of Russia.

Last month Luzhkov announced that his Moscow city government would be a majority partner in a project to build a bridge across the Kerch peninsula, roughly 1,000 km south of Moscow, to connect Crimea with Russia's Stavropol region. Germany's dpa news agency said many Ukrainian officials see this as meddling, threatening the peace between Ukraine's Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking communities.

George Mason University's Katz has a different thought: "It's almost as if he's trying, you know, to out-nationalist Putin."

Luzhkov himself says that for many years he has been an unofficial Kremlin emissary to Russian speakers living in Ukraine's southern regions.

(Zenon Frys of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this feature.)

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