Prickly nationalists squeeze Crimea's new leader: Victorious Yuri Meshkov is already toning down his secessionist rhetoric

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BY 4am the scale of the triumph became clear, and they celebrated with sparkling wine. 'Crimean champagne, the best in the Soviet Union.' By 6am they were on to Crimean brandy. And, by the time the voters who provided the cause for such celebration awoke, the chairman of the Crimean Afghan Veterans' Union and friends were goggle-eyed, wobbly, but satisfied with their vigil at the 'Pentagon', the parliament building where the results of Sunday's poll in Crimea were announced.

The victory was resounding: a chance to elect the first president in this autonomous region of Ukraine drew 75.1 per cent of voters to the polls. 72.9 per cent voted for Yuri Meshkov, a Russian nationalist who promised a Crimea that belonged to Russia, not Ukraine.

Mr Meshkov was less exultant than his supporters. He too was up much of the night, but he had not had a sip of bubbly. He is teetotal. He took a vow 30 years ago after being shot at by drunken comrades during military service as a Soviet border guard. Moderation has crept into his rhetoric, too. Having romped to victory on a promise of 'unity with Russia', an easy vote-winner where 70 per cent of the people are Russian and resent being forced to share Ukraine's economic catastrophe, Mr Meshkov yesterday toned down his ambitions. With silver hair and a tongue to match, the former lawyer and champion marksman sought to calm fear of a new Bosnia on the Black Sea. Crimea, he said, would be a bridge between Ukraine and Russia and not the flashpoint that many, including the CIA, fear could bring war.

'Our main task now is to survive,' he announced in the Pentagon's main chamber. The new blue, white and red flag of Ukraine hung limply to his right and the official seal on the wall behind him declared a goal he seems unlikely to satisfy: 'Prosperity in unity'.

Economics was Mr Meshkov's theme yesterday. 'The rest is all redundant.'

The only passion was ignited not by talk of restoring the Russian empire - a dream dear to the Afghan veterans, shadowy businessmen and far-right groups that guided his campaign. What excited him instead was the failure of local bureaucrats to prepare either office, limousine or residence for the new President. 'I have nothing at all, nothing. This is clearly sabotage.'

Despite campaigning about economic hardship caused by inflation of more than 80 per cent a month, Mr Meshkov said he would gladly accept the offer of a white Lincoln Continental made by a local businessman. 'Entrepreneurs should keep their word.'

But as he rose to leave , a lady of 85 hobbled to the rostrum to harangue him quietly about the perils of compromise and conspicuous consumption: 'My heart is with (Vladimir) Zhirinovsky. I feel he is the only one who will support Russians like me,' she said.

This is Mr Meshkov's dilemma. He has not even formally taken office and he is already caught between the demands of a cantankerous Russian nationalism and the threat of an even more prickly Ukrainian pride determined to block any change in the status of Crimea.

Outside, under a row of leafless trees, two dozen pensioners shivered and shouted for Mr Meshkov to keep his promise of secession. Leading them was Anatoly Los, a tubby fringe nationalist with a silver double-headed Russian eagle pinned to his tie. 'Let them try to stop us, we have the Black Sea fleet. We have National Guard. This is not Nagorny Karabakh. There is no need to fight, but we will take care of them if they try,' shouted Mr Los. His audience, few under 70, nodded in agreement.

Such pressure from the streets offered some comfort to the candidate trounced in Sunday's election. 'The new president is in a very difficult situation,' gloated Nikolai Bagrov, the Crimea's former Communist Party secretary and chairman of local parliament. 'It is impossible to fulfil his programme. It is impossible to solve our problems quickly.' Mr Bagrov, having conceded defeat as ungraciously as possible, shuffled down the corridor to his office, told his secretary he was going on holiday and disappeared. Few expect him to return, though his formal resignation as chairman of the legislature will have to await the next session. He leaves his staff to pick up the pieces left by his election debacle and to welcome Mr Meshkov into the Pentagon.