Justin Vela

Sevastopol and the Ukrainian Presidential Election…

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HELSINKI-The Ukrainian presidential election this last Sunday went exactly as expected.

Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych won the vote, but without the necessary majority over his primary rival, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

A second round of voting will be held on 7 February to decide the victor. Yanukovych has a ten percent lead of Tymoshenko, who is hoping the candidates who did not receive enough of the vote to continue will publicly endorse her. The next few weeks will be see intense backroom negotiations in Ukraine for who will get what in these long awaited elections.

In between this, I’ll be in the “flashpoint” city of Sevastopol, the home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Already making public their expectations for improved ties with Ukraine, Russia has sent a new ambassador and will fight hard for their lease on the Sevastopol harbor to be renewed passed 2017, when it is currently set to expire.

The ethnic Russian residents in Sevastopol are most likely happy that the westward leaning Viktor Yushchenko has not been re-elected to the presidency.

“The election is tranquil, and the voters are active as never before. Under the latest reports, 11% of the city residents had cast their votes by 10 a.m.,” Sevastopol City State Administration Head Serhiy Kunitsyn told reporters in Sevastopol on election day.

He said the problem of voters in Sevastopol having two passports (Ukrainian and Russian), allegedly to enable Russian Black Sea Fleet servicemen to vote, was thought out.

“The problem was largely exaggerated. Even if there are some cases, they are not mass,” he emphasized.

I am eager to ask the residents of Sevastopol what they expected from the predicted improved relationship between Ukraine and Russia. When I was last there in October 2008, many of the older residents expressed an incredibly distrustful view of anything from Europe or the United States. The younger residents in their twenties and thirties were not so distrustful. They saw what could be learned from countries in the West and wanted to create the same level of development, business, and life in Sevastopol. They insisted that their homeland was Russia, not Ukraine however. That remains the core issue in Sevastopol and indeed much of Crimea. The clear majority of the region are loyal to a country in which they are not living in. They believe that Crimea is Russia. That it is legally part of Ukraine is only a historic misstep.

People in Sevastopol will almost certainly want the most pro-Russia candidate as president. How little the candidates differ may not be clear amidst whatever propaganda and past memories are currently floating around in Ukraine. The Kremlin will certainly continue to exert its force in Crimea, something that is welcome from the population, no matter the victor. Crimea will continue to become more Russian and closer to Moscow. How the new Ukrainian president will respond to that and what the result will be is not clear. Yanukovych will most likely extend the Russian lease, though how he will react if the Kremlin’s presence in Crimea becomes too overt is uncertain. South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared themselves independent from Georgia, though the efforts at “Russificiation” were stronger and situations significantly different. People in Sevastopol and Crimea for the most part already consider themselves to be living in Russia. Some say they have to declare themselves independent (with Russia’s help) and really become part of Russia, but for the most part people already believe that they are.

Crimea was recently called a “wildcard” by FP. With both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych promising a balanced position towards Russia and Europe, it is somewhat hard to believe that the situation would escalate substantially. A military intervention of any kind is highly unlikely. However there has been an increasing number of clashes between residents of Sevastopol and Ukrainian nationalists. In October 2008, I was walking down the street in Sevastopol when I noticed Russian soldiers angrily pacing in front of the statue of Catherine the Great, a present from Russia to Sevastopol. The statue had been hit during the night with blue and yellow paint, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. A probable provocation from Ukrainian nationalists who feel that Crimea is slipping away form Ukraine.

An increase in these sort of provocations could spark an intensification in an already tense Crimea. Some delicate diplomacy will be needed to resolve anything that might occur.

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Written by Justin Vela

January 20, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Posted in Europe

Tagged with , , , ,

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