06:37 GMT +316 December 2017
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    Tuzla: Political Provocation

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    Moscow. (Tatyana Stanovaya, for RIA Novosti)

    The Ukrainian authorities are in desperate need of success against the current background of domestic strife, economic policy problems, and fist-fights in parliament. Moreover, it needs to appeal to political groups across the board, from the left wing to patriots and from pro-Westerners to the middle-of-the-road.

    This is what we are currently seeing. For many years, Ukraine and Russia have been trying to negotiate the border issue, but talks have always stalled over the status of the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov.

    In the fall of 2003, clashes over this issue brought bilateral relations to the verge of crisis. But confrontation with Russia "imperial ambitions" served to unite all political forces, even including the Communists. Now Ukraine has decided to repeat its "success".

    The dispute centers on the island of Kosa Tuzla, previously a spit on the Taman peninsula that turned into an island after some parts of it were submerged in the 1920s. Now the island has its own economy, several Ukrainian holiday homes owned by the merchant port of Kerch and the local fishing company - and also a border-guards post. On January 7, 1941 the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR passed a decree on removing the Tuzla spit from the Temryuk region of Krasnodar Territory and making it part of the Crimea, and on February 19, 1954, the Crimea became part of Ukraine. This applied only to its continental part, however, with coastal waters remaining under Moscow's control.

    Delimitation of the Russian-Ukrainian border in the Kerch Strait has still not been completed. Kiev insists that the border should match the old administrative frontier within the U.S.S.R., while Moscow believes that the old administrative frontier has nothing to do with modern sovereign states, and suggests that the dispute be resolved in line with international legal standards.

    Pending resolution of this problem, the Kerch-Enikal Channel - at 8 m, the only deep-water part in the Kerch Strait - belongs to Ukraine, and Russia has to pay transit fees whenever its ships pass through it.

    In fall 2003, Krasnodar Territory began building a dam toward the island for ecological purposes, provoking a furious response from Ukraine, which accused Russia of encroaching on its territorial integrity and threatened to appeal for help to nuclear powers. The political brinkmanship was intensified by the upcoming elections, and the dam became an effective instrument to mobilize voters. Many construed it as an attempt to violate Ukraine's territorial integrity.

    The problem was so fiercely debated that on the one hand it united all political groups trying to pose as the best defender of national interests, while simultaneously exacerbating rivalries between them. Everyone -from the elites around Leonid Kuchma to the right- and left-wing oppositions- came out in favor of maintaining the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

    But talks between the Prime Ministers of the two countries cooled things down: Negotiations took place behind closed doors, and the Tuzla problem was put on the back burner until the Orange opposition came to power. Its leaders took a tough position on Tuzla in 2003, and the Kuchma regime was dragged along by the patriotic sentiments of the population.

    Even so, the Ukrainian elite has been quite united over Tuzla, regardless of whether Kuchma or Yushchenko was in power. Ukraine considers Tuzla to be Ukrainian territory, and believes that the border should pass through the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov. While recognizing Ukraine's jurisdiction over the island de facto, Russia does not want to formalize this status in order to be flexible in talks with Ukraine, something Kiev knows only too well.

    However, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry unexpectedly announced that Russia is ready to acknowledge officially that Tuzla belongs to Ukraine. It seems that Ukraine wanted to provoke the inevitable denial from Russia, thereby giving itself another chance to accuse Moscow of encroaching on its territorial integrity.

    Just like two years ago, the current situation is closely interwoven with domestic political issues. In fall 2003, Leonid Kuchma had not yet decided on his "successor", and then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich was not a consensus figure among the presidential entourage. Meanwhile, the opposition was rising fast.

    Today's situation is similar in some respects. The Orange regime is much more divided than the previous administration: Squabbles in the executive branch were followed by a clash between the government and the Rada. The socialist-led coalition that has urged Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko to quit has itself come into doubt, and there are doubts about a potential alliance of Yushchenko, Timoshenko, and Rada chairman Volodymyr Litvin.

    To consolidate its position the government urgently needs good news and success that would be welcomed across the political spectrum. Official recognition by Russia of Tuzla as Ukrainian would be very good news indeed. But the current Ukrainian government tends to rush to decisions that lead to failures, which only exacerbates its current political problems both at home and abroad.

    Tatyana Stanovaya is a leading expert at the Center for Political Technologies.

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