Crimean peninsula could be the next South Ossetia

Askold Krushelnycky,Ukraine
Thursday 28 August 2008 00:00 BST

Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, could be the next flashpoint in the new Cold War. And any violent disturbance in Crimea could provide the political seismic shock to split Ukraine itself along its existing fault lines of ethnicity, language and religion.

The Crimean peninsula is the only part of Ukraine where ethnic Russians are in a majority. Many of them are deeply resentful about being part of Ukraine and openly call for annexation by Russia. Moscow has fostered pro-annexation groups for years.

Vasyl Ovcharuk, a Ukrainian-Crimean political activist, said: "Moscow has laid the foundations for the occupation of Crimea with years of careful propaganda. It's like Hitler's excuse of helping the ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland as justification for the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. I have no doubt that, now that the Georgian conflict is over, Russia aims to take over Crimea.The level of hatred against anything Ukrainian here is astonishing. Many people have been attacked in the street for merely speaking Ukrainian. You can talk French, German, or Chinese here without problems but if you speak Ukrainian, people often come up and start insulting you."

For centuries, Crimea was the homeland of a Muslim people, the Crimean Tatars, until it was taken by Catherine the Great in the late 18th century. While in Britain the 1854 Crimean War is known because of the charge of the Light Brigade into "the Valley of Death", the port of Sevastopol today brims with proud emotion as the place which Russian forces, heroically but unsuccessfully, defended against the Anglo-French attackers, as well as the site of one of the bloodiest battles, also unsuccessful, against Hitler's armies.

In the Soviet era, Crimea grew as a naval base. And the peninsula, with its mountains, sweeping bays, beaches and Mediterranean climate also became a place of retirement for senior apparatchiks.

Since Ukraine's independence in 1991, the holiday business has revived strongly with a boom in hotels, restaurants, and other leisure-based industries. Much of the business is owned by Russian investors and provides another, purely commercial, motive for "annexation" disguised in passionate nationalist rhetoric.

The presence of the Russian fleet reinforces the local feeling that Crimea is part of Russia. Thousands of Russian sailors and soldiers are used to strolling around the city, and Russian flags flutter above the neo-classical government and naval buildings. The Russian port facilities have been leased by the Russians until 2017, and Ukraine has threatened not to renew the lease. Kiev has already infuriated the Kremlin with new restrictions on Russian vessels entering or exiting Sevastopol which were introduced after the Georgian invasion. Moscow has made it clear it is determined to stay.

Reports that thousands of Russian passports have already been distributed in Crimea have added to fears that a "South Ossetian" scenario is in the offing.

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