10:51 GMT +315 December 2018
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    Tuzla conflict: both sides refuse to compromise

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    MOSCOW (Valery Khomyakov for RIA Novosti).

     After another round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian expert groups on the territorial division of the Kerch Strait, the two sides remain in a deadlock.

     Moscow insists on drawing the borders along the sea floor, Kiev demands they should be delineated along the surface. In addition, the Ukrainian side, accusing Russia of a double-standard policy, is threatening to appeal to international courts. The stalemate is being aggravated by the fact that the issue of Tuzla Island's sovereignty has also yet to be resolved. The conflict over the island in the fall of 2003 almost brought Russia and Ukraine to the brink of war.

    After a storm in the mid-1920s, Tuzla's spit, which used to be part of the Taman peninsula and continuation of the Cape of Tuzla, became an island. For a long time it was not considered cause for concern, except, maybe by local residents, because the conditions for fishing in the area had changed.

    Transferring the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, the Soviet authorities simply forgot about the small island and gave it up only in 1973. The issue was so insignificant that it was resolved by a joint agreement signed by deputy chairmen of executive committees of the Krasnodar Territory and the Crimean region rather than by a decision adopted on the level of the Supreme Soviets of the Soviet Union and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, as the legislation required at the time. Now two presidents cannot solve a problem created by middle-level bureaucrats.

    While the union state existed, the Tuzla issue was never controversial. The delayed-action mine exploded after the collapse of the Soviet Union because the small island suddenly gained strategic importance. Whoever owned the island owned the entire Kerch Strait. It belongs to Ukraine today, but Russia is not happy with the fact that Ukraine imposed duties on the passage of foreign, including Russian, ships through the strait, and also creates a potential threat of the passage of third countries' combat ships to the Azov Sea.

    In the fall of 2003, to assist the diplomats who failed to agree on the controversial issue, both sides decided to set a new precedent in the history of diplomacy using heavy construction equipment to solve a territorial dispute. The Russian side attempted to build a dam in order to turn Tuzla into a peninsula and, therefore, make it a part of the Krasnodar Territory. The Ukrainian side responded with deployment of border guards on the island and the use of a dredger to deepen the waters between the unfinished dam and the island in order to prevent possible flooding and Tuzla's sinking into the water. Russia, in turn, warned about the threat of the collapse of the unfinished dam and possible human losses.

    It is likely that the situation as regards the island will continue to deteriorate, for several reasons.

    Firstly, the current situation in the Ukrainian president's cabinet is far from ideal. Noticeably, despite the fact that during events in Kanev commemorating the poet Taras Shevchenko, leaders of the orange revolution confirmed their plans to form an election bloc during the upcoming parliamentary elections, they immediately started to accuse each other of provoking the energy crisis and poor transparency of future re-privatization.

    Secondly, the recent "gas scandals" will undoubtedly force the Ukrainian political elite to find "an enemy" and incite patriotic feelings among the population. The Tuzla conflict will come in handy in this case.

    Finally, the deterioration of the situation around Tuzla is in line with the strategy of the anti-Russian forces in the West to weaken Russia's influence on post-Soviet territory.

    If we add to it Russia's internal problems and the desire of certain Russian and Ukrainian politicians to promote themselves demonstrating their "professional patriotism," we can be sure that Tuzla, and all the issues related to it, will dominate the front pages of printed media and TV screens for a long time.

    In this situation, Russia must abandon "the bulldozer tactics" in the settlement of the issues related to the passage of ships and delimitation of the borders in the Black Sea and the Azov Sea regions. It must find other, more effective methods of protecting its national and economic interests.

    For now, Tuzla remains a convincing example of weakness in Russian and Ukrainian diplomacy. Why neither side could come up with a mutually accepted solution after almost 15 years of controversy is unclear. Maybe nobody even tried to find such a solution? Maybe everybody simply waited for matters to settle down on their own?

    The situation is both tragic and comic: comic because of the history of controversy and the clumsy attempts to solve it, mildly speaking, using untraditional methods; tragic because of its negative consequences, both for Russia and Ukraine.

    Almost 200 years ago, Nikolai Gogol, a Ukrainian native, who later became a famous Russian writer, described an almost similar situation in his story "How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich". Each of the former friends thought he was right and refused to compromise, they wasted time and health going through endless courts, but in the end they did not solve anything.

    Valery Khomyakov is the director general of the Council for National Strategy.

    The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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