By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Uzhhorod, Western Ukraine
UZHHOROD, UKRAINE (BosNewsLife)– A month after Ukraine’s parliament ratified an agreement with Russia to extend the lease of the Black Sea fleet there is concern about the country’s future. Residents in Western Ukraine fear the move is the beginning of more Russian control over their country, which became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
At a market in the border town of Uzhhorod, stray dogs mingle with visibly concerned salespeople selling meat and consumer products. Several residents see a bleak future under the recently elected president Viktor Yanukovich who they view as pro-Russian.
They are furious that Ukraine’s parliament ratified an accord to extend the lease of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol, in Crimea, until 2042.
Among those angry people is 55-year-old Nadezsda Zatvarskaja who sells household products at the market. She says legislators who backed the agreement must realize Ukrainians will soon not be able to travel to resorts in Crimea. “In the past we could still travel to Crimea, but that will all change,” she tells BosNewsLife. “Rich Russian oligarchs have bought up much of the coastline and with this deal Russia will further increase its presence. There will be no place anymore for ordinary Ukrainians on the peninsula.”
There is little sympathy in this turbulent town for prosecutors launching a criminal investigation against legislators who threw smoke bombs and eggs on the floor of Ukraine’s parliament in protest against the April 27 vote on the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Take 60-year-old salesman Nikolaj Zatvarskij. His son served in the U.S-led military operation in Iraq. He says Ukraine, for which his son risks his life, will soon be under the control of Russia.
As he proudly shows a uniform of his son’s military unit, he explains that the agreement about the Black Sea Fleet was just the first step to take over Crimea. “The next step will be Russia controlling the Trans-Carpathian region in Western Ukraine.”
Zatvarskij doesn’t believe Russia’s promise to deliver natural gas 30 percent cheaper to Ukraine, in exchange for extending the lease of its fleet. “Normal people will not feel anything. This was all done for the rich oligarchs.”
The anger in Uzhhorod, a town of just over 100,000 people, reflects opinions elsewhere in Western Ukraine, the political heartland of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. She lost her bid this year to become Ukraine’s next president, and was forced to resign from her post as prime minister.
Tymoshenko, now under investigation for alleged corruption, tried to move the former Soviet nation further away from Russia’s sphere of influence and closer to Western organizations such as the NATO military alliance.
Western Ukraine is also seen as a strategic region, as it borders EU nations.
However Mykola Azarov, who is now Ukraine’s prime minister, has told BosNewsLife that the new administration remains interested in EU membership. “We like to have a strategic relationship with Russia. That is in our interests,” he admits. “But we also want membership of the European Union, not NATO.”
Some like to give him the benefit of the doubt, including 42-year old lawyer Alexandr Marusenko, who has a Russian background. He says the current government is wise to establish closer security ties with Russia. “I think this agreement about the Black Sea Fleet will bring stability in the region, because the Ukrainian elite is very weak and Ukraine is not a strong state. When we will build a strong state with a strong political elite, then perhaps we can renegotiate the agreement. But for now this is a good deal.”
Yet, there remains a sense of nervousness in Uzhhorod, where residents have close ties with neighboring EU nations, Hungary and Slovakia and nearby Poland and Romania.
The former Soviet-era secret service KGB, now called SBU in Ukraine, has its regional headquarters in Uzhhorod, which at least some view as another sign of an increased security pact between Kiev and Moscow.