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Soviet warship, no engine, seeks future in entertainment

Soviet warship, no engine, seeks future in entertainment

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She was built to be a jewel in the crown of the mighty Soviet navy, though they never got around to installing the engine.

Now the 300-metre (1,000 foot) aircraft carrier Varyag, sold into ignominy to be used in China as a giant floating casino, languishes in the mists of the Black Sea.

Since July Turkey has rejected repeated pleas to let it pass through Istanbul's crowded Bosphorus strait to open seas. The coastguard was on alert, citizens were told, lest it try to "slip through".

"The notion of having this vast floating platform go through alarms me," said one Turkish official who asked not to be named.

"The currents pitch and swirl," he said. "We have to think about the villas along the edge, the palaces, the bridges."

More than 50,000 vessels pass through Istanbul every year, including 2,500 oil tankers. The treacherous narrow, winding passage has frequently been the scene of sinkings, collisions and spills, a source of concern to its 12 million inhabitants.

For Varyag to pass with escort tugs, the strait separating Asia and Europe may have to be closed to other traffic.

THE DAY THE WORLD CHANGED AROUND VARYAG

Ukraine sold the 55,000 tonne Varyag in 1998 for $20 million to a Chinese company identified by Turkish and Ukrainian officials as Agencia Turistica e Diversoes Chong Lot Limitada.

For years it had lain, about 80 percent complete, at the naval yard known in Soviet times as Nikolayev and now by its Ukrainian name Mykolayiv.

"For the Soviet Union, Varyag was the culmination of efforts to build an aircraft carrier (capability)...like the Americans," said Stephen Saunders, editor of Jane's Fighting Ships in London.

Carriers were a key element in Moscow's plans, launched in the 1970s, for a navy strong enough to project Soviet power across oceans and rival Washington on the high seas. Money was no object. Billions of dollars were spent on warships, submarines, naval bases and all the technology that attends them.

However, only one carrier of the illustrious Kuznetsov class - Varyag's sister ship, the Admiral Kuznetsov - made it into service before the fateful date of December 25, 1991.

"Years of development went into the carriers and just when they were getting there, everything changed," Saunders said.

The world did indeed change around the hapless Varyag as the Soviet Union collapsed that month with the Christmas Day resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader.

The Admiral Kuznetsov passed to Russia. Attempts to finance completion of the Varyag failed.

Ukraine looked around for anyone who might like an aircraft carrier without an engine.

BLACKJACK IN THE HANGAR?

The $20 million from China was no windfall for a vessel that costs hundreds of millions, but better perhaps than scrap value.

The fate of the Varyag has become a sensitive issue spoken of in rather hushed tones in Ankara since Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan raised it during a visit last month. The Chinese owners have so far said little publicly, other than confirming their intention to convert it into a floating pleasure palace anchored off the tiny former Portuguese enclave of Macau.

Ukraine has clearly washed its hands of the matter.

There is no way back for the Varyag to Mykolayiv.

Its proud new owners now negotiate with Turkish authorities. Under the 1936 Montreux convention, merchant ships have free passage through the Bosphorus in peacetime, but aircraft carriers, covered by a later addition to the treaty, require permission.

For all Turkish reservations, a go-ahead now seems likely.

The slumbering giant, conceived to send 2,500 servicemen over 3,800 miles, armed with 35 warplanes as well as missiles and guns, may in the not too distant future awaken to the shuffle of blackjack cards on green baize, the rattle of steel balls in roulette wheels, the merry clink of champagne glasses.

Las Vegas, for all its casino hotels with mock Egyptian grandeur and volcanoes that erupt on the half-hour, will not have seen the like.

The main hangar, 160 metres (525 feet) long and 30 metres (100 feet) wide, may not provide the most intimate of gaming areas. But the crew accommodation and other zones, perhaps the housings intended for the eight boilers and four turbines, may turn into stylish hotel rooms, restaurants and bars.

DIFFICULT PASSAGE

If everything becomes a little overwhelming down below, if lady luck proves coy, then a stroll on the 300 metre (1,000 foot) flight deck might clear the head and change fortunes.

Some Turkish newspapers suggest, however, that the casino idea is but a "legend"; that once the Varyag is through the Bosphorus and Suez canal and home in China, engineers will use it to build Beijing's first carrier.

Saunders of Jane's is deeply sceptical.

"The cost to put that ship right would be enormous," he said. "And anyway, there is more to having an aircraft carrier than just the vessel itself. There is the match of aircraft, the entire corporate knowledge.

"I don't doubt the Chinese have aspirations (to own an aircraft carrier) and they could learn a lot about how they are built...but in my view they're a long way from all this."

The Varyag, then, waits somewhere off the coast of Bulgaria under the power of a tug manned by a Chinese crew.

"Strictly speaking, anything can be moved anywhere," said Andreas Tsavliris, a London-based deep-sea towage expert. "It's a question of how much you can spend for protection, how many 'bodyguards' you need. You need more, you pay more."

Bodyguards, in this case, are tugs.

Such a large vessel might be controlled by large tugs at the front and rear, attached by lines. Two other tugs might shadow either side to "nudge" the ship back on course as it deviates and sways with the current and the wind.

But mystery hangs still over the Varyag. Macau, its putative destination and a prominent gambling centre, denies knowledge of the carrier. "Macau's coastal waters are much too shallow for a carrier to anchor," a government official said.

The boldest gamblers might bet on the future of the Varyag.


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