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Romania And Ukraine Argue Over Control Of Snake Island

Bucharest, April 9 (RFE/RL) - Romania and Ukraine are making a new effort to resolve one of those territorial disputes which have arisen since the collapse of communism. This one is over a small rocky outcrop in the Danube known as "Snake Island." The Soviet Union once used it as a radar base checking sea and naval traffic in the Black Sea.

The island is now controlled by Ukraine, which keeps about 70 men there to emphasize its claim. Ukraine argues that the island passed to it in 1918 after the collapse of the Russian empire. But Romania says that it became the owner after 1918 and only lost it to the Soviet Union in 1948.

The latest talks between Kiev and Bucharest began about two months ago (February 26). The Romanian foreign ministry acknowledges that so far there has been little progress but insists that eventually "justice will prevail" and the island will return to Romania. Ukraine is equally insistent about its claims.

At the end of last year Romania's foreign minister, Teodor Melescanu, proposed that the dispute be taken to the International Court in The Hague. But the court takes cases only if both sides agree; and until recently, Ukraine was unwilling to do so. The Foreign Ministry in Bucharest says there are indications that this could change and the dispute might go to the Court after all.

At first sight "Snake Island" ( Zmeinyj ostrov) seems an unlikely source of dispute. It lies in the Kalija channel of the Danube, the most northern of the many arms of the river flowing through the Danube Delta into the Black Sea. The island measures less than two square kilometers in size, is surrounded by rocks and its beaches are stony. The snakes which provided its name have virtually disappeared. It has no tourist potential and economically has little to offer. Romanian officials say the harbor facilities have been out of operation for years and almost nothing can grow there.

According to diplomats in Bucharest, one reason for the continuing interest in controlling it is the possibility that oil and gas reserves may lie in the sea floor under the forbidding cliffs. Romania already exploits other undersea reserves in the Black Sea.

"Snake Island" has played a role in the region for many centuries. The ancient Greeks had a military base here. Later it was part of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. It was taken over by Moscow at the end of the last century.

Romania took possession in 1918 after World War One. Ukraine argues that the island's population at that time was mostly Ukrainian and Romania ignored their right to self-determination in seizing control.

A recent article by a Ukrainian journalist published in the Romanian newspaper "Ziua" said that Romania's King Carol recognized Soviet-Ukraine possession of the island in 1940 - this was at the beginning of World War Two, when Romania was under intense pressure from the Soviet Union. The article also declared that Romania confirmed Ukrainian sovereignty over the island in treaties signed in 1948 and again in 1961.

Romania sees it differently. It says Bucharest's right to the island was acknowledged in the 1947 peace treaty between Romania and the Allies. It was passed to the Soviet Union in 1948 only under heavy pressure from Moscow. The Romanian Foreign Ministry says this transfer was never ratified by the Romanian parliament and therefore has no legal force. In a clever twist of words, Romania officials say that "Ukraine did not inherit the Russia's right to the island but Russia's non-right"

The dispute over "Snake Island" may seem insignificant, particularly considering the other territorial disputes between the two countries. But finding a solution is important for both of them if they are to achieve their aim of closer ties with western Europe.

Until the territorial differences are resolved the basic treaty between the two states cannot be realized. And one of the conditions for integration with the European Union is a basic treaty with all neighboring countries.