At White House, Ukraine's PM to Putin: 'tear down this wall'
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US President Barack Obama met with Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk at the White House on Wednesday to discuss a political solution to the crisis in Crimea, during which he pledged to "stand with Ukraine".
The meeting came amid renewed tensions between East and West, after Russia effectively occupied Ukraine’s Crimea region in the wake of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich’s ouster.
“Mr. Putin – tear down this wall – the wall of more intimidation and military aggression,” Yatseniuk said in remarks aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin that echoed former US president Ronald Reagan’s challenge to the Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union in a 1987 speech at the Berlin Wall.
“We will never surrender,” Yatseniuk said.
During their meeting, however, Obama and Yatseniuk came up with a plan that could lead to greater autonomy for the Crimea region, where a referendum is scheduled to be held Sunday on whether it should rejoin Russia.
Yatseniuk later told a forum in Washington that his interim government was ready to have a dialogue and negotiations with Russia about Moscow’s concerns for the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea.
Asked what a political solution would look like, Yatseniuk said, “If it is about Crimea, we as the Ukrainian government are willing to start a nationwide dialogue (about) how to increase the rights of (the) autonomous republic of Crimea, starting with taxes and ending with other aspects like language issues.”
Meanwhile, the European Union agreed on a framework for its first sanctions against Russia since the Cold War, in what was a stronger response to the Ukraine crisis than many expected and a mark of solidarity with the US.
Crimea, a large peninsula that extends into the Black Sea off southern Ukraine, was absorbed into the Russian empire along with most ethnic Ukrainian territory by Catherine the Great in the 18th century.
Russia's still-operational Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol was founded soon after. The key base gives Russia's military access to the Mediterranean.
More than half a million people were killed in the Crimean War of 1853-1856 between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, which was backed by Britain and France.
In 1921, the peninsula, then populated mainly by Muslim Tatars, became part of the Soviet Union. The Tatars were deported en masse by former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the end of World War II for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis. The Tatars remain a minority group within Crimea.
Crimea was part of Soviet Russia until 1954, when Stalin's successor, the ethnic Ukrainian Nikita Khrushchev, gave the territory to Ukraine, which was also a Soviet republic at the time.
The EU sanctions, outlined in a document seen by Reuters, would slap travel bans and asset freezes on an as-yet-undecided list of people and firms accused by Brussels of violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the measures would be imposed on Monday unless diplomatic progress was made.
The measures outlined by the EU are similar to steps already announced by the US, but would have far greater impact because Europe buys most of Russia’s oil and gas exports, while the United States is only a minor trade partner. The EU’s 335 billion euros ($465 billion) of trade with Russia in 2012 was worth about 10 times that of the United States.
The travel bans and asset freezes could cut members of Russia’s elite off from the European cities that provide their second homes and the European banks that hold their cash.
The fast pace of Russia’s moves in Crimea appears to have galvanized leaders of a 28-member bloc whose consensus rules often slow down its decisions. Merkel herself had initially expressed reservations about sanctions but has been frustrated by Moscow’s refusal to form a “contact group” to seek a diplomatic solution over Crimea.
“Almost a week ago, we said that if that wasn’t successful within a few days, we’d have to consider a second stage of sanctions,” Merkel said. “Six days have gone by since then, and we have to recognize, even though we will continue our efforts to form a contact group, that we haven’t made any progress.”
In Crimea, the regional government is led by a Russian separatist businessman whose party received just 4 percent of the vote in the last provincial election in 2010, but who took power on February 27 after gunmen seized the assembly building.
Two days later, Putin announced that Russia had the right to invade Ukraine to protect Russian citizens.
Preparations for Sunday’s referendum are in full swing. Banners hang in the centre of Crimea’s capital Simferopol, reading, “Spring - Crimea - Russia!” and “Referendum – Crimea with Russia!”
A senior Russian lawmaker on Wednesday strongly suggested that Moscow had sent troops to Crimea to protect against any “armed aggression” by Ukrainian forces during the referendum. Putin and other Russian officials have said armed men who have taken control of facilities in Crimea are local “self-defense” forces.
Crimea has a narrow ethnic Russian majority, and many in the province of 2 million people clearly favour rule from Moscow. Opinion has been whipped up by state-run media that broadcast exaggerated reports of a threat from “fascist thugs” in Ukraine’s capital Kiev.
“Enough with Ukraine, that unnatural creation of the Soviet Union, we have to go back to our motherland,” said Anatoly, 38, from Simferopol, dressed in camouflage uniform and a traditional Cossack fur cap.
But a substantial, if quieter, part of the population still prefers being part of Ukraine. They include many ethnic Russians as well as Ukrainians and members of the peninsula’s indigenous Tatar community, who were brutally repressed under Soviet rule.
“Crimea has been with Ukraine since the 1950s, and I want to know how they will cut it off from what was our mainland,” said Musa, a Tatar. “If the referendum is free and fair, at least a little bit, I will vote against Crimean independence.”
The referendum seems to leave no such choice. Voters will have to pick between joining Russia or adopting an earlier constitution that described Crimea as sovereign. The regional assembly says that if Crimea becomes sovereign, it will sever ties with Ukraine and join Russia anyway.
Still, with the streets firmly in control of pro-Russian militiamen and Russian troops, there is little doubt the separatist authorities will get the pro-Russian result they seek. Many opponents, including Tatar leaders, plan a boycott.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
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