Crimea eyes bridge for link with Russia

Bertrand De Saisset
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A file picture taken on October 24, 2003, shows Russian flag flying at the construction site of the dam from the Russian coast to Tuzla isle in Azov sea, just over three miles (5.5 kilometers) away in the Kerch strait

A ferry is the only way to cross the small strip of sea that separates Ukraine's Kerch peninsula in the far east of restive Crimea from Russia. But maybe not for much longer.

If the city's pro-Russia mayor gets his way, there will soon be a bridge, forging a physical link to an area that is already under de facto Russian control.

Oleg Osadchiy is in a confident mood as he sits in an imposing office dominated by a satellite map showing Kerch and the spit of Russian territory that looks like an open hand reaching out to grab it.

"The 7.5-kilometre (4.6-mile) bridge will be finished in four or five years," said Osadchiy, who is in his fourth term as mayor of the 145,000-strong city, which he claims is "74 percent Russian".

The project received a boost this week when Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev awarded a reported 480 million euro ($345 million) contract for its construction to federal road agency Rosavtodor.

Days later Crimea's parliament, regarded as renegades by the new government in Kiev, voted to secede from Ukraine and said it would hold a referendum on the issue on March 16.

Moscow's forces already control strategically important Crimea -- a mainly ethnic Russian peninsula about the size of Belgium and home to Russia's Black Sea fleet.

- An old dream -

Ukraine and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding on the bridge project more than three years ago, in the hope they could finally realise a project that was first begun seven decades earlier.

Wartime forces built a 4.5-kilometre bridge that was opened in the summer of 1944, but its poor Soviet construction meant is was carried away by ice in the fierce winter six months later.

Several other attempts were made over the coming decades to link the sister republics of Ukraine and Russia under the banner of the USSR, but none bore fruit.

This time, says Osadchiy, "the governments of Russia and (the autonomous republic of) Crimea are very involved".

Although the Ukranian flag sits to his right -- in contrast to its disappearance from many official buildings in Crimea -- he makes no mention of lawmakers in Kiev, some 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) away.

Despite his determination, there is much work still to be done before the bridge becomes a reality, Osadchiy concedes.

It is still at the stage "of technical feasibility studies", he says, which are expected to be completed in November.

Osadchiy speaks excitedly about the rail and road links his city will enjoy with Russia, although he is vague on what the economic impact might be.

Although he does not provide evidence, he says a million people would use the crossing every year, two-and-a-half times the number who traverse the strait between Krymsk and Kavkaz on the ferry.

Down at the docks, armed Russian soldiers -- who might normally find themselves on the other side of the water -- carry out patrols.

There are few takers for the four-times-daily ferry when an AFP journalist visited.

No one wants to travel in such a tense atmosphere, said one Ukranian who did not want to be named.

"The people are afraid," he said.