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Ukraine: Clear Sailing Expected For Sea Breeze Naval Exercises

Anti-NATO protests are expected to be less effective this year (AFP) July 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Warships from NATO countries are docking in Ukrainian ports. Protesters are pitching tents and preparing for noisy demonstrations. Police are escorting foreign military personnel in armored buses for their protection.

It's time for the 2007 version of Ukraine's Sea Breeze naval maneuvers, which begin today near the southern port of Odesa.

The multinational exercises, held under NATO's Partnership for Peace program, have been taking place nearly every year since 1997.

2006 Maneuvers Torpedoed

But they became the subject of bitter controversy in 2006 when thousands of communists and other opponents of pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko protested the impending presence of foreign troops on Ukrainian territory.

The 2006 Sea Breeze exercises were canceled hours before they were to begin. The official explanation was that the U.S. Navy needed to send its warships to the Middle East amid rising tensions in Lebanon.

To take some of the edge off the inevitable protests, Ukrainian authorities have moved Sea Breeze from Crimea to the ports of Odesa and Yuzhny.

MORE: Coverage in Ukrainian from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

This year, although protests are planned, the maneuvers are less divisive. For one thing, Yushchenko has taken care to get parliamentary approval for the exercises -- something he neglected to do in 2006. According to the country's constitution, the deployment of foreign troops on Ukrainian territory must be approved by the parliament for each individual case.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, speaking to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on July 8, said he doesn't expect protests to disrupt this year's exercises.

"This is an absolutely legal decision that has been approved by the central government, represented by the president, Cabinet of Ministers, and parliament," Hrytsenko said.

"This decision foresees undertaking of military exercises in the interest of the country by the military force," he added. "People have the constitutional right to protest and to take some actions, but nobody has the right to interfere with the implementations of the exercises. Whoever will try to do that, is acting against laws upheld by law-enforcement agencies."

To take some of the edge off the inevitable protests, Ukrainian authorities have moved Sea Breeze from the Crimean Peninsula -- home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, many pro-Moscow groups, and a territory which Russian nationalists claim as their own -- to the southern ports of Odesa and Yuzhny.

Yushchenko's political rival, pro-Moscow Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, has also expressed support for the maneuvers, saying they are needed to help protect the Black Sea region and fight terrorism.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based defense analyst and columnist for the Russian newspaper "Novaya gazeta," says that unlike in 2006, Yanukovych is not interested in turning the exercises into a political issue this year.

"Yanukovych wants to portray himself as a friend of the West and a responsible politician," Felgenhauer said. "A year ago they were kind of fighting it out about who is going to be taking over the government. It was a different situation. Right now, at present, the situation has changed a bit internally."

Bad Timing

The aborted 2006 Sea Breeze exercises were scheduled to take place during the highly charged political atmosphere following that year's parliamentary elections when the pro-Western Yushchenko and the pro-Moscow Yanukovych were vying for control of the government.

The issue of foreign troops on Ukrainian soil provided Yanukovych with a convenient way to score political points against Yushchenko.

In May 2006, moreover, two months before the exercises were scheduled to take place, Yanukovych's Party of Regions and other pro-Russia groups organized protests when a U.S. ship docked in the Crimean port of Feodosiya without parliamentary approval.

The hardcore opposition to the exercises is still planning protests. A group called the Odesa Anti-NATO Self-Defense Committee says it will put thousands on the streets. But Ukrainian authorities say they will not tolerate any attempts to interfere with Sea Breeze this year.

"The opposition is scattered right now. There are the communists and some other pro-Moscow groups, but they don't get the support they need from the Yanukovych faction," Felgenhauer said.

The Sea Breeze exercises are scheduled to last two weeks, from July 9-22.

Thirteen countries -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Canada, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United States -- are contributing sea and land forces.

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