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Crimea Cautiously Welcomes New Ukraine Government


Many in Ukraine, particularly in the Russian-speaking south and east, remain hostile to the United States - their former Cold War foe. Russia has warned that relations between the neighbors would suffer if Ukraine joined NATO. In one such territory, Feodosia, protests broke out in June on the arrival of a U.S. cargo vessel ahead of scheduled NATO training exercises.

The anti-NATO demonstrations across Ukraine's southern autonomous region of Crimea in May and June were the first such protests of any kind in this sleepy port city on the Black Sea. Still, they lasted nearly one month and brought well over 2,000 people into the streets. There, they burned American flags and chanted "USA go home."

Opponents of President Viktor Yushchenko have been energized by his party's humiliating, third-place finish in March parliamentary elections, and the difficulty of the country's various parties to put together a governing coalition. Mr. Yushchenko has made NATO membership a top priority and has been pushing for potential partners to commit to that goal.

One opponent, Anatoly Sitkov, first secretary of Feodosia's Communist party, says Ukraine's recent pro-Western moves under President Yushchenko are not to be taken lightly, especially when it comes to the question of Ukraine joining NATO.

Sitkov says Crimea has no ill will toward the West, America in particular, but he says, all the same, Crimea does not want to host all these foreign troops.

He says there are only two real powers in the world today, the United States and Russia and, in his view, these exercises risk breaking that delicate balance as Russia remains firmly opposed to NATO. He says he also opposed the NATO bombing campaign in former Yugoslavia years back and would not like to see Crimea drawn into similar situations in the future.

At the same time, Sitkov says, he takes some comfort in the fact that the recent unity agreement, signed by President Yushchenko and returning Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, establishes that a national referendum must be held before any decision is made on Ukraine's bid for membership in NATO.

Sitkov says his party will participate in a referendum, if and when it is held. But he says the West should still expect more protests in Crimea.

Viktor Buleyko, a war veteran, tells VOA that there is no practical reason for NATO troops to come to Crimea.

" The only reason they would need to do so," he says, "is as a first step to 'occupy' the Black Sea. After that it will then be possible for NATO to attack Russia."

"What help can we expect to get from these troops," Buleyko cries, visibly disturbed. "Crimea is not Iraq, not Iran, not Israel. It is Ukraine," he says, "and standing with us is Russia."

Alexander Evanovsky, a soldier with Crimea's border guard service, too, expresses support for the recent protests.

"Wherever NATO goes, there is war," the soldier says. "But our people are for peace. We do not need foreign troops here."

Evanovsky also rejects the notion that NATO might be a good thing for Crimea if, for example, it shared updated training and equipment. "I have all that I need," he replies tersely.

Pensioner Valentina Leontyevna remembers the night the U.S. ship came into Feodosia's port. She says people protested in the streets for nearly 30 days, sleeping in tents they pitched in a park adjacent to the port. The protests forced the cancellation of at least six scheduled exercises.

Valentina says the people of her town cautiously welcome the confirmation of pro-Russia Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

"We need to wait and see what he does," she says, and then wishes aloud that he had not signed the national unity pact with Ukraine's president. It calls for allowing foreign troops to hold training exercises in Ukraine, such as those the people of Feodosia managed to halt through protests.

After twice rejecting such legislation, Ukraine's parliament, or Rada, this week approved the exercises, the first of which started on Monday in Ukraine's region of Nikolayev. At least three other international anti-terrorism training sessions will be staged in September.

Asked how they will react if foreign troops again come to their shores, the people of Feodosia are clear. They say if Ukraine ultimately opens its windows to the West (i.e. NATO) as appears, it must be sure not to close the door to Russia.

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