Rusting hulks in the land that Russia forgot

CRIMEAN DAYS: Ukraine's rulers insist they back democracy. But most are old Communists

As our elderly Tupolev swept in over the Crimean vineyards to land at Belbek military airport, it passed the sleek carcasses of a once vast air force. There were dozens of fighters glittering silver in the late afternoon sun, all but a few of their cockpits masked by tarpaulins and their engine cowlings shrouded in canvas.

These squadrons once flew for the mighty Red Air Force and now, in theory, they belonged to the Ukrainians. But Ukraine, bankrupt and desperate, cannot afford the toys of the Communist era.

Along the fringes of the lost Russian empire, few places can illustrate the ironies of its disintegration as clearly as the Crimea, proclaimed to be part of Russia for all time by Catherine the Great in 1783. Now, in spite of its mainly ethnic Russian population, it is part of the independent Ukraine and the noises of separatism seem quieted.

Ukraine's rulers insist that they favour free markets and democracy. But most of them are old Communists - men like the Prime Minister, former KGB operative Yevhen Marchuk, and the President, Leonid Kuchma, who built his career running the world's largest missile factory.

President Kuchma had kindly sent his personal Tupolev to collect Malcolm Rifkind from the sad spires of Kiev and to waft him to the Crimean pleasure domes to which the ex-Communist elite still repair for their summer breaks. The British Foreign Secretary, moved by this hospitable gesture, had cheerfully boarded the antique aircraft, with its 1960s synthetic fabric furniture and its luxurious forward compartment, replete with sofas and writing tables. One wondered which Communist grandees had surveyed their realms from its windows during the years the young Rifkind was polishing his Cold War rhetoric.

Politics in the Ukraine seems to be the art of the changeable. Mr Rifkind had already heard cheering words from the former KGB man turned Prime Minister and devotee of capitalist "reform".

"We much appreciated Mr Michael Heseltine's advice on restructuring our coal industry," confided Mr Marchuk. He seemed as pleased about Mr Heseltine and the free market as he had once been about Mr Brezhnev and clapping dissidents in Kiev's gloomy jails. If Mr Rifkind drew any witty conclusions from these compliments, alas, he did not share them.

While Communist Party rule has gone, its trappings of protocol survive like an old sturgeon in aspic: the ridiculous banquets, the arrogant motorcades, the goonish bodyguards, all proceeding through a ruined landscape of poverty and destitution.

From Belbek airport, the cars climbed up spiralling roads above Sevastopol. Once it was a closed port, but its secrets now lie bare to Western eyes. The Black Sea fleet, its 833 vessels unequally divided between Russia and Ukraine, lurks among its inlets and bays. But the most conspicuous impression was one of decrepitude and decay: rusting, half-submerged hulks, a warship's semi-sunken bows protruding from the shallows.

"Sevastopol: Hero City" announced an official sign. It referred to the siege of 1941, when the place held out for months against Field Marshal Von Rundstedt's Army Group South. But the road soon unwound through battlefields more resonant to a British ear: Balaclava, Inkerman and the Alma.

History, in the Crimea, is all around. Yet none of it offers much scope for optimism, whether in the mountains above the Kuchma dacha; at the abandoned palace of the Tatar Khans at Bakhchiserai, where Pushkin scattered roses in the fountain; or down the coast, where a small sign proclaimed the next resort on this glorious littoral: Yalta.

Perhaps it should have read: Diplomats Beware.

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