Tense over Tuzla

Oct. 23, 2003, 3:30 a.m. |
Russia continues building dike as Ukraine protests d tour of Latin America on Oct. 22 in order to attend to the border dispute involving the construction of a dike that some say threatens Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

The president aborted his foreign travel as former allies and critics in Ukraine and Russia speculated that the dispute has been engineered to aid attempts to postpone presidential elections scheduled for October 2004.

Officials from Russia and Ukraine have been discussing the controversial dike for three weeks. The 3.7 kilometer-long earthen breakwater spans halfway across the Kerch Strait, ending just outside the Ukrainian boundary off Tuzla Island.

Construction began on Sept. 29. By midday on Oct. 22, the dike was a hop, skip and a jump from what Ukraine calls its sovereign territory.

Thousands of people demonstrated in Lviv on Oct. 19 against what they called Russia’s aggressive, predatory actions. Kuban Cossack leaders from Russia’s Krasnodarsky Kraj, meanwhile, said that they and their followers are more than willing to reclaim Tuzla when the dike is completed.

The Kerch Strait is a shallow channel connecting the Azov Sea with the Black Sea, and separating Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in the west from Russia’s Taman Peninsula in the east.

Present-day Tuzla Island was originally part of a spit that extended from the Russian mainland. A 1925 storm eroded part of the land, creating a low-lying island seven kilometers long and 500 meters wide.

Tuzla was ceded to Soviet Ukraine in 1954 and claimed by Ukraine as its own after the Soviet Union fell apart. Some 30 Ukrainian families reside on the islet, which hosts several hotels belonging to the port of Kerch.

Media reports in Russia and Ukraine have repeatedly referred to the Russian project as a dam. Rather than spanning the Kerch Strait, however, the low earthen breakwater is intended to protect land on Russia’s Taman Peninsula from erosion, according to the Krasnodar oblast natural resources department.

Official rhetoric about the decision to construct the dike has become increasingly heated as the project nears completion.

Aleksandr Voloshin, chief of Russia’s Presidential Administration, inspired many of the publications on Oct. 14 when he told Ukrainian journalists in Moscow that Russia would not cede the Kerch Strait to Ukraine under any circumstances.

“It’s time [for Ukraine] to stop mocking Russia,” Voloshin said. “We will do everything in our power to defend our position on this issue, even if it means dropping a bomb on Tuzla.”

The led Crimean Prime Minister Serhiy Kunitsyn to respond: “This is a very stupid thing to say, because one bomb will lead to another.”

Kunitsyn, in Kerch on Oct. 21 to meet with local and state border service officials, said that the dispute had obliterated recent attempts to improve bilateral ties.

“I don’t know whose idea it was to build the dike, but I do know that it is ruining everything achieved during the Year of Russia in Ukraine,” he said.

Visiting members of Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, on Oct. 21 issued a joint statement with Ukrainian deputies urging Kuchma and Russian President Vladimr Putin to take “urgent measures” to diffuse the dispute immediately.

At the time, both presidents were traveling abroad. Putin on Oct. 22 began an official state visit to Thailand after attending the two-day Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation Council summit. Kuchma was in Brazil as part of an 11-day tour to Latin America scheduled to end Oct. 31.

Kuchma’s decision to return home will force him to cancel visits to the Dominican Republic, Peru and Panama.

Kuchma and Putin had discussed sharing the Sea of Azov during a meeting on Sept. 17 on Biriuchy Island, which juts off a peninsula in Ukraine’s southern Kherson oblast. The island, as well as the entire Azov basin, is a disputed area, because the sea borders between Russia and Ukraine have not been defined.

”The Azov-Black Sea basin is in Russia’s zone of strategic interests,” Gazeta.ru quoted Putin as saying after the meeting.

”We talked a great deal about it,” Putin was quoted as saying, noting that the final settlement of the legal status of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait had been discussed in depth.

”Tuzla Island does not exist,” said Dmitry Rogozin, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. ”It is only the part of the spit remaining above water.”

“Leonid Kuchma and his aides are attempting to use the scandal to improve their sorry lot in an election year,” Rogozin added in an interview with Russian Interfax on Oct. 22.

Few Ukrainian politicians believe that construction of the dike could have begun without Kuchma’s explicit assent.

Ivan Pliushch, a former parliament speaker, is certainly not one of them.

”Where and when [Kuchma and Putin] agreed [about building the dike] I do not know,” said Pliushch, who on Oct. 21 opined that the dispute is artificially managed in order to prolong Kuchma’s tenure in office and postpone the president’s departure from office.

Under this scenario, Pliushch said, Russia would violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity, leading to what he called the imitiation of thestart of a military conflict. That could justify Kuchma’s decision to organize the dissolution of parliament, or to introduce a state of emergency that would preclude the holding of elections.

”The situation will then become even more complicated,” said Pliushch, who on Oct. 21 predicted that Kuchma would cut short his trip to Latin America.

Ukraine has demanded an explanation twice in diplomatic notes for the dike’s construction. No response has been received.