Besieged president disbands Crimean parliament

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IN A replay of the scenario scripted by President Boris Yeltsin a year ago in Moscow, the president of Crimea, Yuri Meshkov, yesterday disbanded the local parliament and ordered a new constitution to resolve a power struggle in the volatile Black Sea peninsula.

The move, announced in a series of decrees on Crimean radio yesterday morning, sharply increased tension in an autonomous region already bedevilled by a tense ethnic mix of Russians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars and unsettled by a long-running dispute over the Black Sea Fleet.

Barred by police from their own premises in Simferopol, a white concrete building in the capital known as the 'Pentagon', the deputies immediately denounced the decrees as an 'anti-constitutional coup d'etat' and called an emergency session to consider impeaching Mr Meshkov. He was reported by Interfax news agency to have barricaded himself in the 'Pentagon', which also houses the region's executive branch, with 30 of his most loyal supporters.

Most recent political conflicts in Crimea have flowed from the legacy of Nikita Khrushchev's decision in 1954 to make Crimea part of Ukraine instead of Russia. But the current crisis has no clear ethnic, or even political, complexion.

Mr Meshkov and parliament were elected this year and both broadly support the same goal of re-integration with Russia. The pro-Russian bloc, however, has since splintered into feuding factions. Parliament has turned on Mr Meshkov, blocking cabinet appointments and passing legislation to downgrade the executive.

'This battle has no ideological foundation whatsoever,' Lutvi Osmanov, a spokesman for the region's Tatar population said by telephone from Simferopol. 'It is a straight struggle for power.'

Denouncing the legislature as corrupt and granting himself 'full powers', Mr Meshkov, a teetotal former lawyer, suspended the work of the regional assembly in Simferopol and the smaller local councils. A hand-picked committee will draft a new constitution to be put to a vote by next April.

If Mr Meshkov prevails, new parliamentary elections will follow by July.

Locked out of the 'Pentagon', the legislature's presidium met yesterday morning at the interior ministry and scheduled a full emergency session of parliament for last night.

'The president committed actions which violate the laws of the Crimean republic and Ukraine,' the parliament's chairman, Sergei Tsekov, told Interfax.

The sequence of events follows closely that in Moscow last September, when Mr Yeltsin shut down the Supreme Soviet and ordered a referendum on a new constitution giving the executive a preponderance of power.

Viktor Minin, Crimea's minister of state affairs and an ally of the president, said by telephone from the 'Pentagon' that Mr Meshkov had no choice but to dissolve parliament: 'This is a constitutional crisis similar to the one in Russia.'