KIEV, Ukraine -- Just weeks after losing his status of persona non-grata in Ukraine, the infamous and hard-charging Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is back in Crimea and making headlines claiming that the peninsula, and particularly the city of Sevastopol, has always been Russian.Luzhkov, whom former President Viktor Yushchenko declared “persona non-grata” in 2008 over his comments that the Crimean city of Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) is based, should be transferred to Russia, was granted permission to enter Ukraine on July 9. He immediately flew to Kyiv the following day to celebrate President Viktor Yanukovych’s 60th birthday.
But the more disconcerting visit came when Luzhkov traveled to Crimea on July 24-25, which has an ethnic Russian majority and has long been a hotbed of ethnic tension. While there, he visited the Crimean capital of Simferopol, then headed to Sevastopol to meet the city’s mayor, Valeriy Saratov, with whom he signed cooperation agreements between Moscow and Sevastopol for 2011-2013.
Luzhkov also celebrated Russian Navy Day on July 25 along with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who came to visit Yanukovych vacationing in a state residence nearby.
But experts say Luzhkov’s visit to Crimea in light of his position that Sevastopol is a “Russian city” sends the wrong signals.
“Allowing Luzhkov, someone who behaves inappropriately and considers Ukraine some sort of mistake, to visit Crimea is an irresponsible act,” said Serhiy Solodky, deputy director of the Institute of World Policy think tank. “If Russia wants to take its relations with Ukraine seriously, it wouldn’t allow people like Luzhkov to come to Ukraine and make such statements.”
Luzhkov said he expresses no regrets and stands by his statements, underscoring the strategic and geopolitical value Sevastopol carries for Russia.
"We must by no means leave Sevastopol and Crimea. This position is firm, and our response to all innuendoes is: Sevastopol is a Russian city and a Russian naval base, which ensures the geo-strategic balance in southern Russia,” he said at a July 22 press conference in Moscow. “Its loss will be tantamount to the loss of southern Russia.”
It is precisely such statements that had made Luzhkov persona non-grata in Ukraine on May 12, 2008, amidst fears of Russia’s increased involvement in Ukrainian affairs in Crimea.
Allegations have abounded in recent years that Russia uses the presence of its once-mighty Black Sea Fleet to monitor the peninsula’s ethnic Russians, in many cases handing out Russian passports in order to claim rights over “their own citizens.”
The situation reached a boiling point in mid 2008, after Yushchenko expelled two Russian diplomats –one from Crimea –on allegations of subversive activities, provoking Moscow to do the same to two Ukrainian diplomats in Russia.
Then, during Russia’s brief war with Georgia the same year, Yushchenko blocked ships from the BSF from returning to their base after deploying on combat missions to the Georgian coast.
Luzhkov, who is known for his widespread and near-absolute power in the Russian capital, has in recent years kept Sevastopol on his personal agenda.
He personally funded the renovation of the missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Russian BSF, and has donated funds in the past for the establishment of Russian Orthodox churches, housing for Russian sailors, and even a branch of Moscow State University in Sevastopol.
But experts said Luzhkov’s heavy-handed support is part of a greater narrative of Russian involvement in Crimea, particularly in Sevastopol. As a city of immense historical importance to Russia, Sevastopol under Ukrainian stewardship is a hard pill to swallow, according to Viktor Chumak, director of the Ukrainian Institute for Public Policy think tank, and while Moscow’s official line is to accept Ukrainian independence, the status quo is one of denial.
“Some Russian politicians see Ukraine as under their historical ownership, and they simply don’t accept the fact that it is now an independent country,” said Chumak. “And Luzhkov is one them.”
As for Ukraine’s rapidly warming relations with Moscow, Chumak said Kyiv is unlikely to make any more shrewd decisions such as banning Russian politicians from Ukraine over questionable statements.
“The current government is built on cooperation with Moscow in whatever respect,” he said. “While it may realize that this endangers Ukraine’s sovereignty, they will allow it so long as it doesn’t threaten their ability to stay in power.”