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Ukraine: U.S. Navy Stopover Sparks Anti-NATO Protests

Anti-NATO placards displayed during the protest (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, June 1, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian opposition lawmakers have demanded the dismissal of the country's foreign and defense ministers, blaming them for allowing a U.S. naval ship to enter the port of Feodosiya in Crimea last week without the required parliamentary authorization.

Feodosiya residents have blockaded the port, protesting what they see as an unwelcome NATO intrusion into Ukrainian territory.

The U.S. cargo ship "Advantage" anchored in Feodosiya on May 27, bringing what Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko described as U.S. "technical aid." Seamen offloaded construction materials to build barracks for Ukrainian sailors at a training range near the town of Staryy Krym, not far from Feodosiya.

Two days later, Feodosiya residents, mobilized by local chapters of the pro-Russia Party of Regions, the Natalya Vitrenko Bloc, as well as the Russian Community of Crimea, began to picket the port. Displaying anti-NATO slogans written in Russian, they are continuing to block the U.S. cargo from getting to its destination. The BBC reported that several hundred people were present at the demonstration.

"Advantage" has also reportedly left a group of U.S. servicemen in Feodosiya to guard the unloaded cargo, but their presence has not been officially confirmed.

Opposition And Anger

The situation has angered many Ukrainians. According to the constitution, the deployment of foreign troops on Ukrainian territory must be approved by the parliament for each individual case.

The Party of Regions, led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, has said in a statement that the disembarking of the U.S. naval ship in Feodosiya was an example of "brutal contempt" for the constitution manifested by the government. A group of opposition deputies has drafted a resolution to dismiss the Ukrainian defense and foreign ministers over the Feodosiya incident.

But Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk on May 31 denied that the government breached the law: "The authors of this political provocation claim that there has been a violation of the law about foreign military units crossing into Ukrainian territory. But there are no such units."

The government is planning to hold six separate military exercises in Ukraine in 2006 with the participation of foreign troops, including the multinational Sea Breeze 2006 exercise with a sizable NATO contingent. However, an authorization of these exercises by the Ukrainian parliament is still pending. In February, the previous Verkhovna Rada rejected a presidential bill on allowing foreign troops to take part in the maneuvers planned for 2006.

Tarasyuk assured journalists on May 31 that the government will obtain permission from parliament.

"The government will do everything necessary to ensure that the parliament, when it resumes its work, considers a bill allowing foreign troops into the country for taking part in military exercises," Tarasyuk said.

The newly elected Verkhovna Rada will resume its work on June 7, when the three allies in the 2004 Orange Revolution -- the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party -- are expected to come up with a coalition accord to run a new government.

A potential parliamentary debate over the Feodosiya incident will most likely complicate the formation of a ruling coalition. It could set additional hurdles to approving the planned multinational military exercise in 2006, and exacerbate political divisions within the new legislature.

'Russian Hand'

There are commentators in Ukraine who clearly see a "Russian hand" behind what is taking place in Feodosiya. Historian Mykhaylo Kyrsenko told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service earlier this week that people in Feodosiya have been lured into anti-NATO protests by pro-Russian political forces to further Russian interests in Ukraine.

"Those who reject or block this [U.S.] aid are opposing Ukraine's interests and serving another country. Which country? It is not difficult to guess, once you see in what language they write their posters with," Kyrsenko said. "Therefore, I would make a distinction between these hapless, deceived people and the organizers of this provocation."

Foreign Minister Tarasyuk suggested that the anti-NATO demonstration in Feodosiya may be a cover for problems connected with the deployment of a Russian naval force in another port in Crimea, Sevastopol.

"I have one piece of advice for the initiators of this provocation -- they should turn their attention to the disgrace of the free use of land plots and buildings by units of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in violation of Ukrainian law and bilateral agreements," Tarasyuk said.

NATO Chances

In a broader perspective, the Feodosiya protest may impair Ukraine's chances for a significant advance this year on its path toward NATO membership.

Some officials in Kyiv, including Foreign Minister Tarasyuk, hope that, at the NATO summit in Riga in November, Ukraine will be offered a Membership Action Plan. Action plans usually precede an official invitation to join the alliance. The outburst of anti-NATO sentiments in Feodosiya will hardly make NATO members more supportive of this advancement idea.

Sociological surveys in recent years show that Ukraine's official aspirations to join NATO are firmly supported by some 15-20 percent of Ukrainians and firmly opposed by some 55-60 percent of them.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (left) talking with Foreign Minister Tarasyuk in Brussels in April (courtesy photo)

There seems to be an informal consensus at present between the administration of President Viktor Yushchenko and the opposition that Ukraine's potential NATO entry should be approved in a nationwide referendum. But opinions differ on when such a plebiscite should be held.

The Russia-leaning opposition forces would like to stage it as soon as possible, when Ukrainians are more likely to say "no" than "yes." Yushchenko says the referendum should be held in "due course" but has not specified a date.

Moscow, which officially does not object to Ukraine's NATO aspirations, would hardly remain unmoved if Kyiv was actually accepted by the alliance. Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin was quite explicit about this on May 30.

"When a neighboring country becomes a member of the North-Atlantic military bloc, then I'm sorry -- then this strategic partnership [with Russia] should be viewed from a different angle and [it should be reviewed] whether this strategic partnership relationship should continue to exist at all," Chernomyrdin said.

Making Ukrainians like NATO rather than fear it seems to be only a part of the tricky job Yushchenko has to do in order to fulfill his ambitions of Euro-Atlantic integration. A no less tricky task will be to persuade his compatriots that NATO membership for their country does not necessarily mean a disastrous break with Russia.