Moscow reacted to the takeover of the lighthouse with angry statements from government and military officials who described the Ukrainian move as a "seizure" of the Black Sea Fleet's property and demanded that it be immediately returned to the Russian Navy.
Kyiv responded that the lighthouse, as one of the "hydrographic installations" used by the Russian Navy in Ukraine, does not belong to Russia. Of the 101 "hydrographic installations" used by the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the 1990s, Ukraine now has 66 under its control.
Both sides quote the same document -- the intergovernmental agreement on the deployment of the Black Sea Fleet of 28 May 1997 -- to support their arguments.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who suggested earlier this month that Russian sailors in Crimea should defend their property with arms, has no doubt as to Russia's right to use the disputed lighthouse: "The sea navigation facilities of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, part of which is stationed on Ukrainian territory, in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, were each specifically mentioned in a special section of the 1997 basic agreement, including the Yalta lighthouse. So, when Ukraine says that this lighthouse is not mentioned anywhere, it is not true."
But the truth hidden within the mentioned "special section" of the 1997 agreement may be difficult to decipher.
"Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 19 January quoted a part of the so-called Addendum No. 2 to the 1997 agreement, in which the Yalta lighthouse is mentioned under the codename Ya-13. But Ya-13, along with other facilities, is designated in the addendum for joint use by Ukraine and Russia. The addendum also stipulates that a definitive list of facilities in use by the Russian Black Sea Fleet on Ukrainian territory is to be approved by a separate intergovernmental accord. Such an accord, however, has never been concluded.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vasyl Filipchuk obfuscated the row by asserting that the codename Ya-13 cannot refer to the Yalta lighthouse, since, Filipchuk explained, Addendum No. 2 lists exclusively naval facilities in Sevastopol, which is 80 kilometers away from Yalta. Filipchuk also admitted that Kyiv does not know what Ya-13 stands for.
And Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko said both sides, in order to clarify the whole controversy, need to take a clear-cut stock of facilities that are used by the Russians: "We have to make a proper inventory, finally. We assume that the Russian side is also interested in this and we hope we will meet no obstacles in this regard. Otherwise, Russia will be obviously violating its obligations."
Kyiv began to publicize its demand for making a "proper inventory" of Black Sea Fleet facilities in December 2005, after Moscow signaled its intention to increase its price for gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006. Some Ukrainian politicians suggested that Kyiv could use the rent for the lease of naval installations to Russia as a bargaining chip in talks on the price of Russian gas.
Black Sea Fleet Rent
Under the 1997 agreement, Russia's fleet is to remain in Crimea until 2017 for a lease rent equal to $98 million annually. Ukraine does not receive this payment in cash -- the rent is just entered in the books as an item reducing Ukraine's state debt to Russia.
Some Ukrainian media speculated last year that the rent Russia nominally pays to Ukraine for the deployment of the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea is just a fraction of the sum that the fleet's commanders purportedly charge for subleasing the land and facilities they use to private businesses, including tourist agencies. Crimea is a coveted recreation place for the whole post-Soviet area, and every hectare of land there is of great value.
The Russian fleet at Sevastapol (TASS file photo)
The Black Sea Fleet reportedly uses 18,000 hectares of land in Crimea. The Student Brotherhood, a Ukrainian organization that staged several pickets in Crimea earlier this month against what it sees as an unlawful use of Ukrainian land and facilities by the Russian Navy, estimates that the country's budget could gain as much as $3 billion annually if Ukraine took over the controversial possessions from Russia.
In short, there is popular feeling in Ukraine that the country suffers economic losses because of its current arrangement with Russia regarding the Black Sea Fleet.
The row over the Yalta lighthouse has apparent political implications as well.
It is not clear whether the takeover of the Yalta lighthouse was inspired from Kyiv or was just a local initiative.
Some cynics have mischievously said that the takeover was staged exclusively by the Yalta port authorities. They say the authorities could not tolerate any longer the fact that the Black Sea Fleet was reluctant to share profits from its supposed commercial activities with them.
But it seems that the Russian-Ukrainian diplomatic quarrel and the publicity around it is now playing into the hands of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who has not taken any steps to quell the developing conflict.
Yushchenko's political position has become very shaky in the wake of a controversial gas deal with Russia on 4 January, under which Ukraine is obliged to pay nearly twice as much for Russian gas supplies in 2006 as it did last year. Yushchenko's erstwhile ally, Yuliya Tymoshenko, even went as far as to accuse the government of betraying national interests in the gas deal.
Therefore, one can hardly expect Yushchenko to show "weakness" toward Russia once again and back down on the lighthouse takeover in the ongoing campaign for the 26 March parliamentary elections. As many times in Ukraine's 15 years of independence, the country's relations with Russia have become a hot issue that may have a considerable impact on the array of political forces after the elections.