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22 August 2017
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Resting between a rock and a hard place

Questioning a neighboring state`s territorial integrity is the stuff of war declarations. But Luzhkov didn`t stop at that. In keeping with current Kremlin policy, but exceeding his own authority as a mayor, Luzhkov went on to question Ukrainian policies of NATO,...

The May holidays have ended in Ukraine. These were primarily the old Soviet-era holidays, May Day and Victory Day. But in recent years there has also been a new celebration slipped in - Europe Day. Holidays are a time to rest with family and friends, to perhaps reflect on where one is in life. This is particularly true of May Day and Victory Day, which have a longer and richer history than later summer holidays such as Independence Day or Constitution Day. The Soviet-era holidays are more emotive, calling on Ukrainians to look back at the sacrifices made in the establishment of a communist state and the defeat of fascist invaders. Europe Day also provokes emotion, but a vague, euphoric kind of emotion based on a hope for the future. For Ukrainians concerned about the fledgling independence of their country, for those who cared to listen above the din of bandstand music and firework displays, there was a lot to reflect upon last weekend.

Over the holiday-filled weekend, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov arrived in the history-filled city of Sevastopol to challenge the history and geopolitical relations of Ukraine and Russia. The official purpose of Mr. Luzhkov`s visit was to take part in the celebration of the 225th anniversary of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which fell on Europe Day (May 11) and just after Victory Day (May 9). Although the outspoken Russian official had been warned by Ukraine`s Security Service [SBU] to avoid whipping up secessionist sentiment among the city`s supposedly pro-Russian population, Luzhkov apparently just couldn`t help himself.

"I don`t want to create any dissent. I want to tell the truth. In 1948, Sevastopol was set aside as a city subordinate to the [Soviet] state [rather than to Crimea, which later became part of Ukraine]. Sevastopol was not included in those regions and territories that [former Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev gave to Ukraine in 1954. So we are saying this issue has yet to be resolved. And we will resolve it for the sake of the truth, for the sake of Russia`s state position and state right with regard to its naval base in Sevastopol," he said before a Russian rock concert in the city center on Sunday.

Questioning a neighboring state`s territorial integrity is the stuff of war declarations. But Luzhkov didn`t stop at that. In keeping with current Kremlin policy, but exceeding his own authority as a mayor, Luzhkov went on to question Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko`s policies of NATO membership and recognition of the Ukrainian Nationalist Army (UNA), which fought against the Red Army in World War Two.

"When Yushchenko says that the UNA and OUN [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists] are heroes, when the Ukrainian state is striving to join NATO, all this together bespeaks steps taken by the state authorities in Ukraine to destroy our relations as spelled out in the [Russian-Ukrainian] Treaty of Friendship," Luzhkov said.

Taking into account Moscow`s increasingly heavy-handed treatment of Western-leaning former Soviet republics like Georgia, it isn`t surprising that Luzhkov`s remarks would strike a sharp reaction in Kyiv. President Yushchenko hardly responded, but the SBU promptly banned Mr. Luzhkov from re-entering the country.

"Due to the fact that Russian citizen Yury Luzhkov failed to heed the warning of the SBU, which prohibited actions that present a threat to Ukraine`s national interests and its territorial integrity, as of May 12 Luzhkov is banned from entering Ukraine," the SBU said on Monday.

Ukraine`s Foreign Ministry called Luzhkov`s statements "a planned act directed at the disruption of positively developing Ukrainian-Russian relations."

"We assess Mr. Luzkhkov`s statements as a step toward stirring up public tension and complicating the prospects of Ukrainian-Russian partnership," MFA spokesman Vasyl Kirilich said on May 12.

But in Russia the atmosphere was different.

Russian Duma deputies such as radical vice speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky publicly supported Luzhkov`s call for the fate of Sevastopol to be resolved by an international arbitration court and accused the SBU of exceeding its authority.

And Russia`s Foreign Ministry agreed: "Moscow is baffled by the Ukrainian authorities` decision to ban Mr. Luzhkov from entering Ukraine. The Moscow mayor has been unjustly accused of somehow challenging Ukraine`s territorial integrity. Mr. Luzhkov has never made any unfriendly statements with regard to Ukraine but has taken practical steps toward facilitating the development of relations between the two states," reads a ministry statement released on Monday.

Within Ukraine, opposition parties such as the Communists and the Regions, which represent the interests of Ukraine`s Russian-speaking east, and, like Moscow, oppose NATO membership for Ukraine, tried to play down Luzhkov`s statements.

In Sevastopol itself, members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists/Ukrainian Partisan Army scuffled with pro-Russian activists while the former were picketing the HQ of the Russian Black Sea Fleet on May 11.

However, most of the events dedicated to the three days of holidays were peaceful and festive. For example, both Ukrainian and Russian ships took part in the celebration of Russian Black Sea Fleet Day. And a Victory Day parade included US sailors.

In Kyiv, the emphasis was on Europe Day, which recognizes Ukraine as a member of Europe if not the European Union.

While the Kremlin redoubles its efforts to restore its influence over Ukraine, the West is playing coy. The head of the European Commission`s embassy to Kyiv, Ian Boag, told Europe-Day participants that visa-free travel to Europe was still "a distant prospect." While the German ambassador to Ukraine Reinhard Schafers, said Europe was still wary of admitting a country like Ukraine.

Russia wants Ukraine back and is willing to use energy exports or its military foothold in Sevastopol to get it. In the mean time, May Day and Victory Day serve as convenient opportunities to remind Ukrainians of their former bond. Europe prefers Ukraine as a next-door neighbor, with whom block parties like Europe Day help to maintain cordial relations. To the contemplative Ukrainian thinking about more than a day off in warm weather, his country continues to rest between a rock and a hard place.

By John Marone, a columnist of Eurasian Home website, Kyiv, Ukraine

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