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A Russian base on the Crimean peninsula is East-West flashpoint

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2010-04-27

The pandemonium in the Ukrainian parliament over Tuesday’s vote to extend the lease of a Russian naval base on the Crimean peninsular underscores the emotional intensity surrounding a Russian military presence in the former Soviet state.

Scenes on Tuesday of Ukrainian parliamentarians hurling eggs, smoke-bombs and throwing punches like high school kids in a cafeteria brawl stunned the international community. The brouhaha was in response to a vote extending the lease of a Russian base in Ukraine.
But the parliamentary pandemonium underlines the depth of feeling about this explosive issue in a divided Ukraine.
At the heart of the dispute lies a Russian naval base on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast that has turned into a flashpoint for Russian and Western interests.
The Black Sea Fleet's base is located on the northern coast of the Black Sea on the
Crimean peninsula in the historically important city of Sevastopol. For Russians, Sevastopol is steeped in history. It has been home to a Russian naval base since czarist days and into the Soviet era. The city was the focus of the Crimean War between Russia and an alliance of Britain and France in the 1850s. During World War II, it turned into a symbol of resistance before the city fell to the Nazis.
The Crimean peninsular has for long played a critical role in international affairs. Following the allied victory in World War II, the victorious leaders gathered in the Crimean city of Yalta to discuss Europe’s post-war reorganization.
During the Soviet era, the lush peninsular was a popular destination for Soviet and East German tourists.
On the frontline of NATO’s sphere of influence
Today, the base in Sevastopol is a critical means of extending Moscow’s influence on the former Soviet state especially since it’s on the frontline of NATO’s sphere of influence.
While Ukraine is not a NATO member, the country applied for membership under the government of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, a staunchly anti-Moscow politician.
Ukraine’s current pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovich, who took office earlier this year, has maintained that NATO membership is not on the agenda.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has maintained that the extension of the Russian base's lease does not affect Ukraine’s prospects of eventually joining NATO. But under the current administration, the chances of that are slim.
For Ukrainian opponents of this lease extension, its proximity to Georgia caused consternation during the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict. Tens of thousands of Russian troops, as well as warships, submarines and aircraft carriers from the Black Sea Fleet base took part in the conflict, alarming Ukrainian politicians such as Yushchenko, who forged close ties with a West-leaning Tbilisi.
In Georgia, the extension of the Sevastopol lease is being monitored with growing alarm.
Under the terms of the latest deal between Ukraine and Russia, the lease has been extended for another 25 years after 2017 – when the current lease ends – with the further option of another five-year extension after 2042.
For gas and money
Supporters of the lease extension say the deal was an economic necessity.  
In exchange for maintaining its base in Crimea, Moscow agreed to grant Ukraine a 30 percent discount on Russian natural gas, estimated to be worth 40 billion dollars over the next 10 years.
Ukraine’s economy has been faring poorly since the financial crisis began, and the gas-price cut is expected to help stabilize its budget.
Shortly after the lease vote went through on Tuesday, parliament adopted the 2010 state budget, which is key for securing 12 billion dollars in credit from the International Monetary Fund.
Behind the pandemonium in parliament on Tuesday, there were economic imperatives, geopolitical games and deep emotional and historical resonance at play.

Date created : 2010-04-27