Thursday, 06 March 2014 20:14
YALTA: Russian soldiers may not be in Yalta, but locals are worried about their tourist season as the city on Crimea's Black Sea coast wakes up to the first spring sun amid fears of a possible war between Ukraine and Russia.
In the seaside city nestled in the foothills of the Ukrainian Riviera, police loyal to the authorities in Kiev patrol the seafront with their hands in their pockets.
"All is well, all is calm," said one of them.
There are no ships in the port, only five yachts are bobbing on the waves, sails folded, and a dozen pleasure boats are lined up at the jetty.
"There are no Russians here, no soldiers, no problems. This is a civilian port, security is provided by private guards," said Anatoly Sviritov, a security officer.
It's normal for there to be no tourists yet in the first days of March, said Lilia Ivanova, a travel agency director.
But the tense political and military situation, loud headlines and photos of armed and helmeted men in major newspapers around the world, do not bode well for the tourism season.
Russian forces took de facto control of Crimea, home to the Kremlin's Black Sea Fleet, following the ouster on February 22 of Ukraine's pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych.
The local parliament in Crimea took a step Thursday towards seceding from ex-Soviet Ukraine, asking to become part of Russia and pledging a referendum on the subject for March 16.
"We are against Putin's aggression, we fear that it will scare tourists away," said Ivanova.
"There is no tourism where there is terrorism," added the young woman.
An English-language poster on the wall in her Intourist travel agency reads: "Yalta, Crimea's cruise capital."
The city hosts some 10,000 cruise passengers a year and a first cruise ship, from Germany, is expected on April 11, she said.
"We do not know if they will come."
On the promenade, the tricycle rentals, fairground rides, bouncy castles with slides and shooting ranges are deserted.
In the cold wind, several families rush towards the few open cafes.
- 'What happened in Kiev is illegal' -
On the esplanade, pro-Moscow activists have set up a tent under the statue of Lenin.
One of their placards reads "No to NATO", another "Russia protects us from Nazis".
Patriotic songs and Russian flags attract gawkers. Some of them agree to sign a petition.
Businessman Vitaly Akhmetov, a 33-year-old strapping blond in a black leather jacket, said he collected "over 27,000 signatures to demand a referendum on Crimea's future".
"We feel reassured by the fact that Moscow has sent in troops to protect us," he said.
"We want them to stay. What happened in Kiev is illegal. Ukraine no longer exists as a country after their revolution. 98 percent of people do not want to deal with these bandits."
This was where the world was divided into Western and Soviet spheres of influence and the post-war geopolitical map was drawn up when Joseph Stalin hosted Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in February 1945.
In the palace's terraced garden overlooking the seashore, Vladislav, Yuri, and Inna bask in the sun, playing with a cat, and waiting for the start of an excursion. The teenagers came from central Ukraine to spend some three weeks in a nearby sanatorium.
"When the crisis began, our parents called us asking to leave but we reassured them. It is calm here," said Vladislav with a smile.
"All this is politics. There will be no war," added Yuri.
"The borders exist, why change them? Nobody is threatening the rights or lives of Russians in Ukraine. This is propaganda and it will not work."Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2014