Port anniversary raises tension over navy’s future

The Ukrainian port of Sevastopol is marking its 225th anniversary. About three quarters of the city's residents are ethnically Russian, and the port is the main base of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. But that could soon end a

Sevastopol was founded as a naval outpost when Russia conquered the Crimean peninsula in the 18th century. It was built as a base to guard the southern borders of the Russian empire.

During its history the city has seen a lot of military action. It was under siege by British, French and Turkish forces during the Crimean War. It has even contributed a word to the English language, balaclava, which is not just a piece of headwear, but also a Sevastopol district.

Occupied by the Nazis during WW2, it was later liberated by the Red army at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Sevastopol was awarded the title of 'Hero City' – an award only a dozen Soviet cities received for the outstanding heroism of its people during the war.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says the place has a special place in Russian history.

“It’s a beautiful and great city and home to many outstanding military men, scientists, writers and artists,” he said.

Lavrov also said the Defence Ministry is doing a lot to improve the social conditions in the city and there are plans to invest more federal funds there.

It's a city associated with Russian military glory and the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. But, ironically, it is not a Russian city. In the middle of the 20th century the Crimean peninsula was handed over from one constituent of the Soviet Union, Russia, to another – Ukraine. After the dissolution of the USSR, the Soviet Black Sea Fleet was divided between Russia and Ukraine.

Some residents still find the division traumatic, as does former Black Sea Fleet officer Evgeny Dubovoy:

“It’s like if parents are divorced and ‘divide’ a baby, one gets head or legs, another gets body and hands. Sorry to say such terrible things, but that's what the officers, the residents, all of us felt when the fleet was divided. We all suffered”.

The naval bases are leased to Russia until 2017, but Ukraine doesn’t want to renew the agreement, although this policy isn't approved of by everyone in the Crimea.

The Ukrainian Communist Party claims it has gathered a million signatures from the people of Sevastopol in support of providing a permanent base to the Russian Navy. If the petition figures are correct, it means every second Crimean is in favour of keeping the Russian fleet.

Controversy over Catherine the Great

The city celebrations have been marred by a dispute over a monument. Local court officials tried to stop the unveiling of a bronze statue of Russian Empress Catherine the Great which has been was erected in one of the city's parks. They said that it was illegal and that no agreement had been reached on its placement .

The statue was done by a Ukrainian sculptor who died less than three weeks before it was due to go on show. Installed in a park on Friday, it will be guarded by local activists until its official unveiling on Sunday.

Sevastopol was founded by Catherine the Great as an outpost of the Russian Empire on the Black sea.