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Russia/Ukraine: Prime Ministers Meet Today Over Tuzla Dam Dispute

Russian and Ukrainian prime ministers met today in Moscow in an attempt to defuse the situation surrounding Russia's construction of a dam in the Kerch Strait along the Russian-Ukrainian border. The strait connects the Azov Sea to the Black Sea and serves as a passageway to the Mediterranean for both Russia and Ukraine. The dispute over the dam -- which Kyiv views as an attempt to annex its land -- is quickly becoming the worst bilateral crisis between the two capitals since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Moscow, 24 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It has taken just two weeks for Tuzla -- the disputed Ukrainian island at the mouth of the Kerch Straight -- to become a household word in Russia.

Local Russian workers in Krasnodar are hard at work building a dam-like structure near Ukrainian territorial waters linking Tuzla to its mainland. As the dam inches closer and closer to Tuzla, Ukraine has accused Russia of attempting to annex the island. Russia has dismissed the claim, saying it is merely trying to fight the effects of erosion.

Meeting today in Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich were insistent that "negotiations are under way." But Yanukovich noted that people in both countries are "worked up about the situation." Tensions are so high they have sparked concerns the disagreement may devolve into a full-blown military conflict.

Russia's presidential chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, this week told Ukrainian journalists Russia "will drop bombs" in the Kerch Strait if necessary to maintain its hold on the waterway. And Ukraine has mounted troops, gunboats, and warplanes to protect Tuzla. RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to Russians about the escalating conflict. In a dozen interviews, no one expressed sympathy for the Ukrainian position. But some, like this man, expressed concern the conflict would lead to violence. "They're just building a dam, but the Ukrainians don't understand what's going on. They'll start shooting soon. I think they'll start shooting."

Another man says it falls to presidents Vladimir Putin and Leonid Kuchma -- who cut short a visit to Latin America following Voloshin's remarks -- to find a way to peacefully resolve the conflict: "Ukraine and Russia couldn't agree from the start on how to split up the Soviet Union. Everything will depend on Kuchma and Putin, on what kind of agreement they'll come to."

Local Russian authorities say the dam is being built to stave off erosion and restore the original geography of the early 20th century, when Tuzla was attached to the Krasnodar region mainland by a slim strip of sandy ground, later washed away by strong storms.

Tuzla has been part of Ukraine since the Soviet era, and Kyiv now has full rights over the traffic that crosses through the navigable part of the Kerch Strait. Ukraine says Moscow is eager to reclaim its rights regarding Tuzla, and comments by local Russian officials -- like Krasnodar Governor Aleksandr Tkachev -- appear to support such concerns.

"About the whole circus that is going on on the other side, on the Ukrainian side -- our brothers -- we can confirm that Tuzla is a part of the Russian Federation, a part of the Krasnodar Krai. We dug into archives, into the history of the region, and we sent all this legal basis to the [Russian] government and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And I think that this is land that was bathed in Cossack blood, and therefore it is our sacred land," Tkachev said.

Tuzla became part of Ukraine in 1954 when General Secretary Nikita Khruschev offered the Crimean Peninsula as a gift to the Socialist Republic of Ukraine. Although Tuzla was not physically part of the peninsula, it had officially been aligned with it since 1941.

Moscow has taken steps to remove itself from Tkachev's maelstrom in Krasnodar. Prime Minister Kasyanov, and Putin in the background, appear to be playing the pacifiers. It was Kasyanov, for example, who announced that the dam's construction would be suspended for a few days. However, Putin appeared to have acknowledged some problems in the region when, during a trip to Kuban in September, he noted the absence of Russian border guards on the Azov Sea.

The coverage by Russian state-controlled media of the Tuzla conflict has focused on the fate of Russians with seaside homes that stand to be washed away if the dam is not completed. Another recent broadcast reported on the remains of Soviet soldiers killed in World War II and discovered near the Kerch Strait and dangerously close to the eroding shore.

"Rossiskaya Gazeta," the official paper of the Russian government, today ran a comment praising the "restraint and magnanimity" of Russia and listing what it calls all the "troubles" that Moscow has "patiently endured" -- the 2001 shooting down of a Russian plane by an errant Ukrainian missile, Kyiv's mounting gas debt, and more.

As for the deeper reasons behind the rift, most observers note the lingering issue of how to share the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait. Despite an agreement on giving the Azov Sea an interior sea status -- regulated by bilateral agreements and not international law -- Moscow and Kyiv have failed to agree on how to share the sea and its riches. Kasyanov appeared to say that it was high time to determine final borders once and for all, and allow all Azov-Kerch issues to be settled bilaterally. At stake is the $22 million paid annually by ships crossing the Kerch Strait.

But there is potential wealth as well -- alleged reserves of oil and gas -- that may be straining ties as well. Some newspapers have speculated that Moscow may also fear that Ukraine will unilaterally allow NATO to establish a base on its territory, bringing it within meters of Russia's border. Home to the seaside residences of the tsarist-era aristocracy, and an inspiration to Russian poets, Crimea was part of the Russian empire and Soviet Russia until Khruschev gave it away 50 years ago. A regrettable move today, perhaps, the gift may have at the time seemed of little consequence -- a slight administrative snip on a map that was all under Moscow's direct grip anyhow.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Crimea's new status as the "near-abroad" had many Russians first confused, and then angry. Adding to the debate was the fact that a majority of Crimean residents are themselves Russian-speakers.

In Russia, the issue of Crimea -- with its nationalist overtones -- often arises ahead of elections. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has repeatedly voiced his pro-Crimean stance -- a move analysts see as attempts to diversify his Moscow-focused image to include a broader range of issues.

Could faraway Tuzla have anything to do with Russia's Duma elections this December -- and the presidential ballot next spring?

Ekho Moskvy radio editorialist Andrey Cherkizov thinks so. If the dam could have been finished discreetly, he says, "there would have been applause until March" -- the month of the presidential vote.

Some Russian politicians, like Duma Foreign Affairs Commission head Dmitry Rogozin, have used the issue to dust off some of their most provocative rhetoric. "Even if the local authorities didn't pour that sand there, we could just walk over there to them [on the other side of the channel], with their good-for-nothing army," Rogozin said.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Rogozin is running for re-election as head of a so-called "patriotic-oriented" party list.