Black Sea Fleet flies flag of compromise: Admiral quells unrest but denounces presidents' decision to share warships

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The Independent Online
OFFICERS of the Black Sea Fleet, who had threatened to mutiny over a deal sharing their vessels between Russia and Ukraine, obeyed their commander yesterday and raised the old Soviet flag as a sign of submission to their political leaders. But the commander himself went on to criticise the deal, increasing pressure on the authors, Russia's Boris Yeltsin and Ukraine's Leonid Kravchuk, to reconsider it.

Last night Mr Kravchuk insisted that Ukraine was entitled to its own navy and Mr Yeltsin was still saying that he stood by the agreement with his counterpart in Kiev. He urged servicemen to resist 'provocations', which seemed to be a reference to statements made by his rebel deputy, Alexander Rutskoi, in support of the dissidents.

The fate of the 300-ship fleet has been one of several thorny issues preventing the two largest republics of the former Soviet Union from achieving harmonious relations since the collapse of Moscow's empire. Mr Yeltsin and Mr Kravchuk thought they had made a breakthrough last month when they agreed to abandon joint command of the fleet in favour of an equal share-out, with the proviso that the Russian navy would still be able to use ports on Ukrainian territory.

This solution was necessitated by the fact that some crews had been hoisting the St Andrew's flag, the pre-revolutionary Russian naval ensign, to show their dissatisfaction with joint command and their desire to serve Russia.

Instead of making everyone happy, however, the new deal brought a more serious protest when 120 officers met on Tuesday and declared that the entire fleet should fly the St Andrew's flag and come under Russian jurisdiction. Officers of Kiev's fledgling navy said that if this happened the Russians would be regarded as foreign intruders in Ukrainian ports including the base of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula. Mr Kravchuk warned the officers sternly: 'The fleet serves the state. The state is not to serve the fleet. If some officers do not agree with the decision of the two presidents, the only way out of this in civilised countries is for them to resign.'

The commander of the fleet, Eduard Baltin, was bound to maintain naval discipline and ordered the ships to fly the old Soviet flag, which is the agreed ensign until the division takes place in 1995. All the main ships obeyed him yesterday morning; a few auxiliary vessels continued the protest. But Admiral Baltin went on to denounce the two presidents' plan, saying: 'A 50-50 split is ruinous for the Black Sea Fleet. It is vital to create new units and not simply to divide up the ships. The agreement did not decide any of the social, economic or political problems and it is for this reason that the officers decided to raise the St Andrew's flag in protest.'

He was supported by Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, designated head of Russia's Security Council, who said that Ukraine was only entitled to 20 per cent of the fleet.

Mr Yeltsin is now under pressure not only from Russian nationalists but also from respected military figures to renegotiate the deal. But Mr Kravchuk, a former Communist and half-hearted reformer who stays in power by playing the nationalist card, will not stand to see Ukraine's share cut. Further tension over the Black Sea Fleet could bode ill for Russian- Ukrainian relations and the wider world, for Kiev still has to be encouraged to ratify the Start-1 nuclear arms treaty as it has promised, but so far failed, to do.

Russia's parliament ordered the government to impose sanctions against Estonia in protest at Tallinn's new aliens law. This gives non-Estonians two years to apply for citizenship or a residence permit or face expulsion from the tiny Baltic state.

(Photograph omitted)

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