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Russia/Ukraine: Black Sea Fleet Dominates Sevastopol's Future

By Floriana Fossato and Vladimir Todres

Sevastopol, 5 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Checking-in at one of the main hotels in the Crimean port-city of Sevastopol, home of the disputed Black Sea fleet, is an amazing affair these days. Together with the room-key, the client receives a plastic bucket.

A not-so-friendly clerk then explains the bucket is "for clean water," since often there is no water whatsoever in Sevastopol, which is located on the Ukrainian Black Sea coast. He goes on to say that hot water should be available on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but in fact this happens "only in theory."

Almost the same happens with electricity, gas and heating.

Travelling around town, the main item one notices advertised on Sevastopols's walls is a water-heater. The ads read "if you do have cold water in your house, with our water-heaters you will soon enjoy hot water too."

Actually, there aren't many other items to be advertised. The majority of Sevastopol's factories have no work, since they are military factories. Those workers who recently received their salaries for last November are considered lucky. They are mainly Fleet officers. Local traders say they cannot efford to travel to buy goods to Turkey or Poland anymore. It's too expensive and anyway, as they say, there is too little money around.

The status of Sevastopol, historically a military town with a military economy, is in a vacuum due to the dispute between Russia and Ukraine on the division of the Black Sea fleet.

Crimean Supreme Soviet deputy Aleksandr Morozov, an activist of Sevastopol's Russian community, says it is clear the only future for the city is to remain Russia's main military base on the Northern littoral of the Black Sea.

But, Yury Ilin, a physicist who was one the founders of the pro-Ukrainian "Congress of people of Sevastopol" says only Kyiv can assure Sevastopol's transition to a town with a civilian economy.

The idea of a free economic zone for Sevastopol started with former Mayor Ivan Yermakov, who was later dismissed by the then Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk.

Yermakov says the presence of the military base in the heart of the city has prevented authorities form creating conditions for the transition to a peaceful economy. Some 25 kilometers of the 40 kilometer harbor mooring lines belong to the Navy. He says nobody would allow commercial vessels to anchor nearby. And, according to Yermakov, no foreign investors would be allowed to produce civilian goods in military factories. Such a situation can only lead to further economic stagnation for this city of 400,000 people. But the existence of many of them is direcly linked to the Black Sea fleet.

Yermakov says he knows that both Russia and Ukraine will not agree to liquidate the military base, despite the fact that neither country has the financial possibility to fund its existence.

Russian and Ukrainian Navy officers agree that the city can be only a military base. But while Ukrainian officers say they support the creation of a free economic zone in the town's vicinity, Russian officers are sure such ideas are only an excuse to get rid of the Russian fleet in Sevastopol.

Talks on the division of the fleet have continued for the last five years, but without result. Recent statements by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who last month brought to Sevastopol a delegation of Russian parliamentarians and said Sevastopol is a Russian city, are unlikely to ease things. However, Russian Foreign Minister Evgeny Primakov said last week that Russia should not make territorial claims against Ukraine. Primakov said Russia suggests a long term lease of Sevastopol as the base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Relations between Russia and Ukraine have been strained by the question of Crimea, populated by a majority of Russians, but given to Ukraine during the Soviet era. In 1991, 57 percent of the population voted in favor of Ukraine's independence. But in June 1993 some 100,000 people demonstrated in favor of Crimea's re-union with Russia. And one year later some 89 percent supported the preservation of Sevastopol as the main base of the Russian Black Sea fleet.

The leader of the city's Russian community, Raisa Telyatnikova, says at last year's Russian presidential election, Sevastopol's Russians supported president Boris Yeltsin. She explains that Yeltsin's main rival, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, was not favoured in Crimea because his speeches centered on the restoration of the USSR.

"We know this is an utopian idea," says Telyatnikova "but a Russian Sevastopol is still a possibility."

In Sevastopol people say they understand with difficulty what happened after the breakup of the USSR. The majority did not change the old Soviet passports into Ukrainian ones, and they feel uncertain whether they are Russian or Ukrainian by nationality. And the commander of a Russian military vessel said he cast his ballot at both Ukrainian and Russian presidential elections. He said he voted for both Leonid Kuchma and Yeltsin, "because they have a clearer idea of whom we belong to."

Among the Russian politicians, the most popular one in Sevastopol these days is certainly Luzhkov. Irina, the wife of a Russian Navy officer, says she did not participate in any vote recently, but that she would have voted for Luzhkov. Before being assigned a flat in one of the houses built with Moscow's money, the family lived for seven years in a room located inside the city stadium.

Since 1995, 398 "Moscow flats" have been built and assigned. Luzhkov has promised another 128 flats by July this year. A board on each new house explains it was donated "to the Black Sea fleet from the Moscow city government." Moscow citizens are curiously not mentioned. The flats, built by the military, are assigned only to the families of Black Sea Feet personnel.

Recently Kyiv's mayor Leonid Kosakivsky joined the race. 52 flats were assigned to families of Ukrainian Fleet officers. But the Kyiv city government seemingly for the moment cannot efford more. "What about us then?" ask Sevastopol's other frustrated citizens.