Crimea contemplates long road back to Russia: Ukraine is less and less capable of fighting the lure of Moscow, writes Andrew Higgins in Yalta

ALONG the waterfront, down a steep hill from the neat, white palace where Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt admired the Black Sea and split the Second World War spoils, squats a rusty metal kiosk with an Orthodox cross on the roof and shelves of angry tracts trumpeting conflicts to come.

Next to a pamphlet hailing Serbian advances in Bosnia, a newspaper article has been taped to the window. Its headline: 'No Life Without Strength: Must We Restore the Empire?' The question is rhetorical. The pressing issue in this elegant seaside resort, linked indelibly with the apogee of Soviet power, is no longer if, but how, Russia will recover its lost domains.

Yalta, along with the rest of the Crimea, voted overwhelmingly last week in favour of Yuri Meshkov, a Russian nationalist, in the final round of the peninsula's first presidential poll. Campaign posters linger along Lenin Embankment and proclaim the slogan that won over 70 per cent of the vote: 'Union with Russia'.

The result mirrors the makeup of Crimea's population: two-thirds Russian, the rest mainly Ukrainian and Tatar, a Turkic-speaking people who ruled for four centuries, left a magnificent palace celebrated by Pushkin, only to be uprooted entirely by Stalin and deported to Central Asia in 1944.

Most voters were not signing up for an imperial crusade. They were protesting against lengthening bread queues, inflation of 80 per cent a month, a currency that has plunged to 39,000 to the dollar and other miseries blamed on a 30-year- old decision by Nikita Krushchev to transfer Crimea from Russia to Ukraine. When Krushchev relabelled the map it meant nothing. Ukraine and Russia belonged to the Soviet Union. Today, it risks pushing them into war.

Crimea confronts three treacherous legacies. The first is the issue of sovereignty. The second is the horrendous injustice suffered by Crimea's Tatars, some 250,000 of whom have now returned from exile. The third is Crimea's special place under Soviet rule, when it was a favourite sanctuary for the party elite and generously funded home base for the Black Sea fleet.

Conversations follow the same ominous pattern. 'It is impossible to have war here,' protests Sergei Shvainikov, a local deputy endorsed for president by Vladimir Zhirinovsky but knocked out in a first round. 'It would be awful. It would spread. Kiev and Moscow understand this. It would not be local conflict like Nagorny Karabakh, Abkhazia or Bosnia.' He finishes, though, with a boast: 'One shot from the Black Sea fleet would destroy half of Ukraine.'

Since becoming President, Mr Meshkov has softened his rhetoric about secesssion but still wants a referendum on Crimea's status.

Moscow pretends to stay aloof, content to watch Ukraine crumble and let the large Russian majority in Crimea fumble towards the exit. President Boris Yeltsin has repudiated the interventionist policies of the old parliament, which claimed Sevastopol as Russian territory and cheered on extremists in Crimea.

Russian money and advice, though, pour in through other channels. 'Sooner or later, a union must be recreated. No one can stop it,' says Valary Averkin, a director of Impex- 55, a Crimean company that helped to bankroll the nationalist cause. 'Conflict in the Crimea would make Chernobyl and Yugoslavia seem like child's play.'

But it is the Russian rouble that seduces most. Zinaida Chernikova, 67, a pensioner and former Nazi prisoner, celebrated Mr Meshkov's victory by standing outside the Crimean parliament building, the 'Pentagon', cursing the Ukrainian President, Leonid Kravchuk. She blames him personally for a miserable monthly pension paid in Ukrainian karbovantsi, for wonky wiring in her flat and for the theft of food packages sent from a German charity.

Ukraine vows it will not let go. Its Defence Minister talks of not wanting to 'to liberate Crimea the way General Schwarzkopf liberated Kuwait', but suggests this may be the only option. If Crimea did rejoin Russia, other Russian- speaking regions of Ukraine would surely follow. And it is this danger that has led the CIA to warn of partition and civil war. Ukraine's ability to stop the process is dissipating fast. The Black Sea fleet, like the rest of Crimea, is slipping into Russia's hands, with Kiev agreeing last September to lease its share to Moscow.

Ukrainian nationalists make bellicose threats: 'Only war can end this,' says Alexander Fedorenko, a chemistry professor who heads the Crimean branch of the Ukrainian Republican Party. 'We will defend ourselves when we have to.' Until then, he must tackle a more urgent problem: finding enough money to pay the rent on his party's office.

(Map omitted)