SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russian flags hung from balconies, many cheered the army sent to fight Georgian troops and the town planned a hero’s welcome for the ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
A Russian town?
No, this is the port of Sevastopol in Ukraine, where the government and president backed Georgia in its conflict with Russia over South Ossetia. Some believe that Ukraine could be a new flashpoint as Russia flexes its muscles in the former Soviet Union.
“Everyone is talking about the same issue, everyone is against the way Georgia behaved. I also support Russia,” said Aleksei Romanov, a 33-year-old working in advertising walking down the pristine and sunny streets of Sevastopol.
Russia used ships from the Black Sea Fleet to land troops in Georgia and patrol its waters. The first boat returned on Friday and local pro-Russian organizations were planning a pro-Russian rally and a military band for when more arrive on Sunday.
The 18th century Empress Catherine the Great built the neo-classical port to house the Russian Navy after taking decades to conquer the Crimean region.
The pride and joy of the Russian military, the region was granted to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954. After the Soviet Union fell, Moscow was forced to lease the harbor space.
But the contract is due to run out in 2017. Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko says Kiev is not planning to renew the lease, angering Moscow, which is already furious at Ukraine’s ambition to join the NATO military alliance.
The region — a popular holiday destination for centuries due to its green mountains, deep-blue sea and sunny climate — is dominated by ethnic Russians and the Ukrainian language is almost never heard.
“We are all the same — Russia and Ukraine and Sevastopol are bound so tightly in a knot that it is difficult to untangle it,” pensioner Pavel Pankratov said.
Such comments would be an anathema to Ukrainians living, for example, in the west of the country who have asserted their Ukrainian nationality since independence in 1991 by increasingly refusing to speak Russian and by celebrating Ukrainian history.
RUSSIA – OUR PROTECTORS
Russia’s military dominates the town — the Black Sea Fleet employs thousands of its residents, monuments to Russian military heroes stand prominently in squares and nearby villages have names such as “Defence” and “Frontier”.
Russian money keeps the town clean and freshly painted. Off-duty navy personnel often shoot the Russian version of snooker in some of its late-night bars.
“As long as the fleet is here, there will be no problems. I suspect people in the Ukrainian government do not understand the meaning of the fleet for Sevastopol,” Anatoly Litvinov, a 59-year-old working at the base.
Most in the region are against NATO membership after decades of Soviet propaganda portraying it as a warmongering enemy and most want the fleet to stay on after 2017.
“The fleet is a protection against everything — including NATO,” Litvinov said.
Local politician Gennady Basov said: “The Black Sea fleet will be in Sevastopol after 2017 and Sevastopol will not allow any provocation from the Ukrainian government. This will serve the interests of Ukraine and Russia.”
Such sentiments have raised fears among some Ukrainians and politicians that Russia could start a conflict here in the same way it was able to aid the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, also populated by ethnic Russians, and invade Georgia.
Russia handed out passports to South Ossetians and Abkhazians — from the other rebel region — and said it was protecting its own citizens when Georgia tried to retake the regions by force earlier this month.
In Ukraine, dual nationality is not allowed, but rumors have spread that in Crimea as many as 60,000 people have both Russian and Ukrainian citizenship.
“The overwhelming majority of people in Sevastopol would like to have Russian citizenship to be nearer Russia and to be protected by the Russians,” said Mikhail Furashov, another local politician.
“The sphere of the Russian language is getting smaller — but if we can have Russian citizenship there is a chance of living a normal fulfilling life.”