26 Jan 2023, 08:52

Ukraine's Odessa wins UNESCO status despite Russia opposition

PARIS, Jan 26, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - UNESCO on Wednesday added the historic centre of Ukraine's port city of Odessa, often described as "the pearl of the Black Sea", to its World Heritage List, overcoming opposition from Russia.

The 21 member states of the UN cultural body's world heritage committee approved inscribing designated areas of the city with six votes in favour, one against and 14 abstentions.

Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February last year, repeatedly tried to delay the vote to recognise the site's "outstanding universal value" and "the duty of all humanity to protect it".

"While the war continues, this inscription embodies our collective determination to ensure that this city, which has always surmounted global upheavals, is preserved from further destruction," said UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay after the decision.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who requested the listing in October to shield the city from Russian bombardment, welcomed the decision.

"Today Odessa got UNESCO protection," he said on Twitter.
"I'm grateful to partners who help protect our pearl from the Russian invaders' attacks."

Since the Russian invasion, Ukrainians have rushed to try to protect the city's monuments and buildings with sandbags and barricades.

The site was also added to the List of World Heritage in Danger, which UNESCO says "gives it access to reinforced technical and financial international assistance" to protect or, if necessary, rehabilitate it.

The agency added that it had already helped with repairs on the Odessa Museum of Fine Arts and the Odessa Museum of Modern Art after damage since the beginning of the war.

- Political tensions -

Odessa blossomed after Russian Empress Catherine the Great decreed in the late 18th century that it would be the country's modern maritime gateway.
But the extent of Russian cultural influence on the city is a contentious topic.

Tensions had risen ahead of the vote, with Ukraine objecting to what it viewed as a "politicised" description of the port city in a draft decision that described Empress Catherine II as having "founded" the city.

Ukraine's Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko and Odessa mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov, in an open letter seen by AFP, contested this, saying the city thrived long before the Russian empress' arrival.

"The continuous development of Odessa as a port city dates back to the 15th century," they said, and was known as Hadzhybei.

But Russian President Vladimir "Putin's propaganda used the myth of the 'founding of Odessa by the empress', which appeared in the 19th century, as one of the grounds for Russia's territorial claims on Ukrainian cities and the beginning of its armed aggression," they added.

- 'Glorious past' -

Russia's representative to the world heritage committee on Wednesday repeatedly criticised what she described as a "poor" application dossier from Ukraine, alleging it was mostly drawn from Wikipedia and tourism websites.

The representative also accused Ukraine of "destroying monuments" in the area it sought to protect, and tried unsuccessfully to indefinitely adjourn the vote.

After the decision was adopted, Russia's mission to UNESCO claimed in a statement it had been taken "under pressure from the West" and "disregarding rules of procedure".

It seethed that the world heritage committee had "ceased to be a platform for professional dialogue," and the world heritage status had become a "bargaining chip for settling political scores".

In Moscow, Russia's foreign ministry accused a group of Western countries of pushing through what it called a "politically motivated" decision in violation of standard procedures.

"It was prepared hastily, without respecting the current high standards of UNESCO," the foreign ministry said, stressing that just six countries voted in favour.

Moscow pointed to "the glorious historical past of Odessa as part of the Russian state" and insisted that "the only threat" Odessa faced was from "the nationalist regime in Ukraine" which has taken down a number of monuments in the city.

In December, Ukrainian authorities in Odessa pulled down a statue of Catherine II as part of its efforts to de-Russify the city, after polling residents on what to do with it.

Six other Ukrainian sites have already been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including the Saint-Sophia Cathedral in the capital Kyiv and the historic centre of the western city of Lviv.


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