San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Russian warships' arrival off Nicaragua provokes controversy

MANAGUA –Three Russian navy ships that arrived Friday off Nicaragua´s Caribbean coast departed earlier than expected after opposition lawmakers complained that the Constitution requires congressional approval for such a visit.

The destroyer Admiral Chabanenko and two support vessels – carrying a crew of 650 – were received by Moscow´s ambassador to Nicaragua, Igor Kondrashev, and Nicaraguan navy commander Adm. Juan Santiago Estrada.

The ships sailed in from Panama, where they had stocked up on provisions after taking part at the beginning of this month in joint exercises with the Venezuelan navy.

The vessels docked nine miles east of El Bluff port in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region. They were planning to stay till Monday but pulled up anchor and departed about midnight Saturday.

Kondrashev and Santiago Estrada told the local press that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega would pay a visit on Saturday but that visit was canceled, ostensibly for bad weather, according to official media.

The Russian ambassador said the fleet was participate in a “friendly” mission in Nicaragua and will provide $200,000 in humanitarian aid to communities in that country´s poor Caribbean region.

Hours before the arrival of the Russian ships, however, opposition lawmakers sent a letter to the Russian ambassador demanding the vessels stay in international waters until the constitutionally required congressional approval for the visit could be granted.

“We would greatly appreciate, out of respect for the territorial sovereignty of Nicaragua and the close ties of friendship that unite our peoples, that the indicated military vessels remain in international waters,” the lawmakers said in the letter.

Ortega said Thursday night that he complied with the Constitution in issuing an executive decree – already published in the official gazette –authorizing the Russian ships in Nicaraguan waters.

However, that decree has not been ratified by Congress, as is required by the Constitution, because the legislative body´s sessions have been suspended for a month due to a dispute over municipal elections that the opposition says were marred by fraud.

The governing leftist Sandinistas won 105 of the 146 mayoral races in the Nov. 9 balloting.

The Liberal opposition has demanded a recount and even new balloting in some municipalities under the supervision of independent international observers, but election officials have certified the results.

Russia´s navy deployment to Nicaragua´s close ally, Venezuela, was the first to the Caribbean since the end of the Cold War and came after Moscow expressed its anger over Washington´s move to send Navy vessels to Georgia during that country´s military conflict with Russia last summer. Nicaragua was the only nation other than Russia to recognize the independence of two Moscow-leaning breakaway provinces of Georgia.

Although Moscow said the early-December joint exercises with Venezuela – governed by socialist Hugo Chavez, a fiery critic of U.S. foreign policy –had nothing to do with “third countries,” they were widely viewed as a challenge to the U.S. influence in Latin America.

As part of the visit to Panama, a Russian warship traversed the Panama Canal for the first time since World War II.

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