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Ukraine’s Odesa Wins UNESCO Status Despite Russian Opposition

UNESCO on Wednesday added the historic center of Ukraine’s port city of Odesa, often described as “the pearl of the Black Sea,” to its World Heritage List, overcoming opposition from Russia.

The 21 member states of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s world heritage committee approved inscribing designated areas of the city with six votes in favor, one against and 14 abstentions.

Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February last year, tried repeatedly to delay the vote to recognize 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.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who requested the listing in October to shield the city from Russian bombardment, welcomed the decision.

“Today Odesa 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 Odesa Museum of Fine Arts and the Odesa Museum of Modern Art after damage since the beginning of the war.

Odesa 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 “politicized” 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 Odesa 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 Odesa 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 Odesa 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.

Russia’s representative to the world heritage committee on Wednesday repeatedly criticized 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.”

In December, Ukrainian authorities in Odesa 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 been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including the Saint-Sophia Cathedral in the capital Kyiv and the historic center of the western city of Lviv.