KIEV, Ukraine — A group of French opposition lawmakers are making a controversial visit to Crimea, defying both Ukraine and their own government while earning plaudits from Russia.
The eight members of France's lower house of parliament, led by former transport minister Thierry Mariani, and two senators are calling on Western countries to lift sanctions imposed on Russia for annexing the peninsula from Ukraine last year. "For us, Crimea has become [part of Russia] once and for all, as reinforced by a referendum and in accordance with historical reality," Mariani told the Kommersant newspaper.
Yves Pozzo di Borgo, a French senator, had a simpler message, posing with a T-shirt with a phrase written on it that roughly translates to, "Obama, You Suck!"
The trip, the first by national European lawmakers since Russia annexed the peninsula in March last year, is a major propaganda coup for the Kremlin, which has sought to derail the sanctions by seeking out supporters within European countries. The only European officials to visit the peninsula previously were fringe politicians, mostly from minor far-right parties, who endorsed the slapdash referendum held to legitimize the annexation. Only a handful of countries have recognized Russia's claim to Crimea, including Afghanistan, Syria, and North Korea.
Mariani said the trip was organized by the Russian Peace Foundation, run by a senior Russian lawmaker, and Dialogues Franco-Russes, a group which he chairs along with oligarch Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russia's railway monopoly and a close friend of President Vladimir Putin. The lawmakers said their visit was a private initiative and that French foreign minister Laurent Fabius had tried to talk them out of it. Eight of them, including Mariani, hail from the center-right Les Républicains party, which is led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Claude Gouasguen, a member of the party, told the TASS state newswire that Sarkozy was "enthusiastic" about their visit and would not exclude visiting Crimea himself.
Fabius told the National Assembly's foreign affairs committee that he was "shocked" by the trip, the French newspaper Libération reported. "There's a risk that Russian media will make use of this trip and a risk of violating international law: going to Crimea without the permission of the Ukrainian authorities means recognizing Moscow's claims" to the peninsula, he said.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the trip was "irresponsible" and showed "disrespect for Ukraine's state sovereignty." The lawmakers may face entry bans from Ukraine for visiting Crimea without Kiev's permission, the ministry added.
The Russian passport–holding French actor Gérard Depardieu, who said last year that Ukraine was "part of Russia," is among more than 500 foreigners whom Ukraine's security services are considering blacklisting for supporting Russia's claims on Crimea, according to Ukraine's culture minister. American actor Steven Seagal, a friend of Putin's who performed with his blues band at a nationalist biker festival in Sevastopol last year, is also on the list.
Russia, meanwhile, welcomed the lawmakers with open arms.
Greeting the lawmakers in Moscow before they flew to the peninsula on Thursday, Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament, told them they would see how glad Crimeans were to have returned to Russia. "People will honestly tell you how they felt and what kept them going all those 23 years — from 1991 to 2014 — when due to a number of circumstances was, albeit peacefully, annexed by Ukraine," Naryshkin said, according to the TASS state newswire.
State TV ran wall-to-wall coverage of the trip to Crimea, which saw the lawmakers visit the cities of Simferopol, Yalta, and Sevastopol. Meeting with senior officials heavily involved in last year's annexation and separatist referendum, the lawmakers asked them to save a French military cemetery in Sevastopol, which dates from the Crimean War in the mid-19th century and is at risk of being demolished for construction.
"Over these two days we saw that there is no occupation, no armed men, people are free," Mariani told reporters. "This is a peaceful region and people here live freely and happily."
Mariani said that Russia's annexation had saved Crimea from certain war after Ukraine's corrupt Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country in February following violent protests against him. "If Crimea hadn't returned to Russia, what could have happened? Wouldn't we be in the same situation as Luhansk and Donetsk?" Mariani said, referring to two eastern Ukrainian provinces partly controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
European leaders have struggled to keep a unified response to Russia's military intervention in Ukraine. The drive for sanctions, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, requires the agreement of all 28 European Union member states and has encountered opposition from countries like Italy, Slovakia, and Hungary that rely on Russian energy or trade. French President François Hollande is a major supporter of the sanctions and a member of the Normandy group regulating the peace process in eastern Ukraine alongside Merkel, Putin, and Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko.
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
Contact Max Seddon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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