Moscow-Kiev relations hit rock bottom

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A SURGE of support for pro- Moscow Communists in Ukraine's parlimanetary elections and a sharp rise in tempers over the disputed Black Sea fleet yesterday pushed relations between Russia and Ukraine to perhaps their lowest ebb since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Russia's naval commander, Felix Gromov, described as 'explosive' the situation in the Black Sea fleet, probably the most emotional and volatile issue dividing the Slav rivals. By late yesterday, however, the risk of serious armed conflict seemed to have drawn both countries back from reckless brinkmanship.

The crisis coincided with a second round of voting for Ukraine's first post-Soviet legislature on Sunday. Preliminary results yesterday appeared to confirm a pattern of east-west polarisation between Russian-speaking regions and bastions of Ukrainian nationalism.

With hyperinflation and general economic collapse undermining faith in Ukrainian independence - as well as Kiev's ability to pay its share for the upkeep of the Black Sea fleet - much of a lacklustre election campaign revolved around the republic's relations with Russia.

Communists and their socialist and agrarian allies, who favour re-integration with Moscow as the only solution to Ukraine's economic woes, will probably form the biggest bloc in the parliament, with more than 110 of 450 seats. Most deputies will be nominally independent but they, too, often support closer ties with Moscow. More than 100 seats will require a further round of voting.

Pro-Russian sentiment is particularly strong in Crimea, an autonomous region of Ukraine with a population more than two-thirds Russian. The victory of a staunch Russian nationalist, Yuri Meshkov, in presidential elections two months ago was followed at the weekend by the triumph of his Russia Bloc in polling for a local Crimean legislature. The bloc, which advocates union with Russia, won 54 of 94 seats, Tass reported.

Crimea is home to the Black Sea Fleet, whose 300 ships, assorted shipyards, ports and airfields Ukraine and Russia initially promised to share, but which have been a source of constant friction. Ukraine agreed last September to surrender its claims to the fleet in return for cash but later changed its mind.

The latest flare-up began on Saturday, when sailors loyal to Russia commandeered a research ship at the Ukrainian port of Odessa and set sail for Sevastopol. Six Ukrainian ships tried to intercept it, Interfax reported, but turned back after Russia sent an attack group from the Black Sea Fleet. Ukraine was also reported to have ordered four Su- 15 fighters into the air to simulate attacks on fleet headquarters at Sevastopol. Other reports spoke of Russia using tracer bullets and water cannons to drive off a Ukrainian coastguard vessel.

Tension increased further yesterday when Ukraine retaliated for the loss of the research ship with a raid on a Russian- controlled naval yard at Odessa. A naval spokesman in Moscow said a Ukrainian commando force of 120 armed paratroopers stormed the base, captured three Russian officers and led them away in handcuffs. Russian civilians were said to have been roughed up and windows smashed. Kiev denied hurting anyone.