Crimea vote will test ethnic Russian loyalties

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The Independent Online
THE Crimean peninsula, a mainly Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, holds presidential elections tomorrow that carry the risk of serious confrontation between local Russian nationalists and the authorities in Kiev. The vote will provide the first test of ethnic Russian opinion outside Russia since the extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's success in last month's Russian elections.

Victory for a Russian nationalist candidate in Crimea would underline the threat posed to the stability of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics by the 25 million ethnic Russians who live beyond Russia's borders. From President Boris Yeltsin to Mr Zhirinovsky, almost all Russian politicians agree that Moscow has a right to 'protect' these minorities and to assert Russia's influence over its neighbours.

Russians make up two-thirds of Crimea's 2.65 million people, and all but one of the six presidential candidates favour union with Russia or independence for Crimea. 'If radical forces come to power, it could be very dangerous for Crimea and Ukraine,' said Yaroslav Mendusia, an adviser to Ukraine's President, Leonid Kravchuk.

Crimea's stability is also important because the area is the base of the Black Sea fleet, whose ownership is disputed between Ukraine and Russia. An extra factor in the peninsula's dangerous ethnic equation is the return since 1989 of at least 250,000 Crimean Tatars, a people whom Stalin deported to Central Asia in 1944.

Violence has been a feature of the election campaign. A prominent Crimean Tatar politician, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and a Black Sea fleet spokesman have been murdered in the past two months. Gunmen have fired shots at two presidential candidates.

Crimea's tensions are rooted in the Soviet period. Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 to mark what the Soviet authorities portrayed as 300 years of Russian-Ukrainian unity. In those days, the gesture meant little because the Soviet state was so centralised.

But when Ukraine declared independence in 1991, Crimean Russians began to agitate for autonomy or full independence from Kiev. Few Kiev-based Ukrainian political movements are active in Crimea, and Rukh, the main opposition party, has urged Mr Kravchuk to cancel the Crimean elections.

Ukraine's preferred candidate is Mykola Bagrov, the head of Crimea's parliament, who rejects secession in favour of co-operation with Kiev. As a former Communist who has governed the peninsula through three years of economic hardship and rising crime, he stands little chance of winning an outright majority tomorrow.

Two other front-runners are Yuri Meshkov, who supports Crimean independence followed by unification with Russia, and Leonid Grach, a Communist who backed the anti-Yeltsin forces in Russia's parliament last year. Mr Grach envisages the closest possible ties with Russia, including a currency union, and even appears to hope for the reconstitution of the Soviet Union.

Another Russian nationalist candidate, Sergei Shuvainikov, who wants to unite Crimea and Russia by executive order, has connections to Mr Zhirinovsky. However, his campaign has run into trouble because of accusations of embezzlement against him. If no candidate secures an outright majority, the top two will face each other in a run-off within a month.

(Map omitted)

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