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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sevastopol A Rusting Hot Spot

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine -- While Russia and Ukraine bicker over this coveted port city in the Crimea, once-glorious Sevastopol is rusting away, trapped in limbo.


With its Soviet-era Black Sea fleet, its breathtaking views and its grand history, control over Sevastopol is an emotional issue that has riven Russian-Ukrainian relations since the 1991 Soviet breakup.


Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma badly wants to seal a final fleet agreement with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, out of fears the ailing Yeltsin could soon be replaced by a leader less willing to compromise.


On Thursday, Yeltsin agreed to send Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to Ukraine next month to sign accords that would let Russia keep more than 200 of the fleet's 300 ships, with the rest going to Ukraine.


But there's strong resistance from many Russian politicians and the two sides have yet to work out any agreement on the status of Sevastopol.


It is part of Ukraine now, but for many Russians it is a potent symbol of their country's military glory. Its defense in the 19th-century Crimean Wars and World War II have inspired generations of Russians and Soviets.


Like many Sevastopol residents, Igor Andreyev has little patience for the seemingly endless political squabbling. "Politics never solved anything for this city,'' said the Russian, a retired naval medic.


"These arguments will go on forever,'' said Vera, a Russian worker in one of Sevastopol's two hotels.


The Russian State Duma voted 334-1 on Wednesday for a bill that would prevent the Russian government from giving even part of the fleet to Ukraine. Moscow's powerful mayor, Yury Luzhkov, and other Russian politicians insist that Sevastopol itself is still Russian property.


Seventy percent of the 450,000 citizens are ethnic Russians, and while the tensions aren't explosive, they are palpable. Last month, a Soviet monument was desecrated after a Russian naval holiday. Ukraine's national guard troops tote machine guns as they patrol city hall both inside and out. The city's most vocal residents are its 22,000 military veterans, mostly Russian.


They often demonstrate at the picturesque Count's Pier, and frequently appeal to Russia for political support.


Meanwhile, the city is broke. The Russian fleet pays just a fraction of the taxes it owes to the city hall, and the cash-strapped central government in Kiev hasn't been able to help much.


The crumbling city is now open to outsiders after being closed for most of its history, but foreign investors are still frightened by the potential for turmoil.


Today, aging warships in Sevastopol are being stripped and sold for scrap metal to the local junkyard, one of the city's few thriving businesses. Many naval officers haven't been paid since May.


"If I weren't a public servant, I would say that no one needs this fleet. It should be done away with,'' said the city's mayor, Boris Semyonov.