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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Luzhkov Plays Nationalist Card on Kiev

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov on Thursday criticized in harsh terms the ratification of a friendship treaty with Ukraine, saying it ignored the "forcible Ukrainization" of ethnic Russians in Ukraine and gave up Russia's chance to claim the Black Sea port of Sevastopol.

Luzhkov, a likely presidential hopeful in 2000 who seeks to exploit nationalist sentiments, has often criticized what he calls abuse of Russians in former Soviet republics such as Ukraine.

The statement, issued by his Otechestvo, or Fatherland, political organization, said "the ratification is carried out during the further toughening of a policy of forcible Ukrainization of the 12 million ethnic Russians residing in Ukraine."

The statement accused Ukraine of forcing the Russian language out of mass media and the education system, closing Russian-language schools, worsening disputes between competing Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches, and distorting the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations.

In December, the State Duma voted 244-30 to ratify the treaty signed by President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in May 1997. The pact commits the nations to peaceful relations and resolves some territorial issues.

Ukraine's legislature overwhelmingly ratified the treaty last January, while Russia's Communist-dominated lower house of parliament had balked at approval, alarmed by Ukraine's participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov argued for ratification, saying failure to do so would drive Ukraine further into the arms of NATO, whose expansion into central and eastern Europe is opposed by Russia. He said that pressing Ukraine for territorial concessions would ruin relations and violate international norms.

Luzhkov's statement lays out a legal pretext for Russian nationalist claims on the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, home to the Black Sea Fleet. Sevastopol is located in Crimea, a former Russian territory that was transferred by Nikita Khrushchev to Ukraine in 1954. The statement said Sevastopol was put under direct control of Moscow in 1948 to speed its reconstruction after World War II and therefore was not legally affected by the 1954 transfer.

Russia rents the Sevastopol naval base under a 1996 deal dividing the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet.

Luzhkov accused the Communists, who dominate the Duma and could have blocked ratification, of "favoring their own interests more than the interests of their compatriots from abroad."

The statement said the Federation Council, parliament's upper house, where Luzhkov is an influential figure, should send the treaty back for changes.

"The treaty should guarantee our Russian compatriots living in Ukraine, the right for free national and cultural development," Interfax cited the statement as saying.

Luzhkov on Thursday ruled out a political alliance between his centrist Fatherland movement and the Communist Party, saying the Communists had been stained by recent anti-Semitic remarks, Reuters reported.

"There can be no union between Fatherland and the Communists. The Communist Party represents the left wing and now it is leaning more and more toward leftist extremism," the news service quoted Luzhkov as saying while attending the opening of the Marriott Royal Hotel in central Moscow.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov has indicated he would not be averse to a union with Fatherland ahead of December's parliamentary election.

But Luzhkov said Fatherland, which held a founding congress last month, would be an independent force. "You remember the anti-Semitic statements of members of the Russian Communist Party, so there can be no union or rapprochement on this basis," Reuters quoted him as saying.