Pro-Moscow nationalist takes lead in Crimea poll

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE SHINY venetian blinds were drawn yesterday at the Afghan War Veterans Club, campaign headquarters for the Russian nationalist, Yuri Meshkov, who by this morning was expected to have been declared President of Crimea. If the CIA is right, he may ignite perhaps the most explosive ethnic tinderbox in the former Soviet Union.

Burly young men in red berets, automatic rifles slung over their shoulders, watched the locked door. Party posters on the wall showed kung-fu fighters, sultry Russian pop singers, a deluxe pool table on offer at the Odessa Gentlemen's Centre and other trophies of the good life lost, clients say, since the Soviet collapse, but set to return once Mr Meshkov is in charge.

A revived union is inevitable, said Mr Meshkov, dressed for election day in a black leather jacket. 'This is dictated by the economy. No politician can block it.' Such sentiments appeal in a region that is nearly 70 per cent ethnically Russian and 80 per cent Russian-speaking but which, thanks to Khrushchev's decision in 1954 to rejig the boundaries, is part of Ukraine, whose currency now trades at 40,000 to the dollar.

The CIA, in a report, has warned of partition and ethnic conflict in Ukraine. Yesterday in Simferopol, the Crimean capital, Mustafa Cemiloglou, leader of Crimea's 280,000 Tatars, yesterday warned of war if Russian nationalists took hold of the presidency.

Crimea has more autonomy than the rest of Ukraine, but Mr Meshkov is demanding a referendum on complete self-rule. As polling ended yesterday, the only obstacle to his triumph seemed a continuation of the violence that has claimed the lives of four political leaders in the campaign. 'There is operative information that they will try to influence the election outcome through physical liquidation,' he said.

Mr Meshkov, a lawyer, won 38 per cent of the vote in a six-candidate first round two weeks ago. But he likes to remind visitors of his own martial flair: as a young Soviet conscript guarding the border with Iran 30 years ago, he won a KGB competition for automatic-rifle marksmanship. 'I have not been practising a lot, but I think this is a skill that could be regained quickly.

His supporters want him to regain a lot more. His programme offers a ragbag of promises: free medical care, a crackdown on crime, entry to the rouble zone and most importantly 'state self-rule that will permit the renewal of unity with Russia'. Fearful that Ukraine might annul the election, he now tones down his rhetoric, but few seem convinced.

Across Simferopol yesterday, Mr Meshkov's remaining rival had all but conceded defeat. Virtually alone in the headquarters of the Crimean Supreme Soviet, of which he is chairman, Nikolai Bagrov, 75, admitted that his campaign promise to keep Crimea within Ukraine was unpopular. 'Discontent is the only winner in this election. People don't vote for a programme, and this is our tragedy. They want to live better but I can't make promises. They will be disappointed very soon.' An unrepentant bureaucrat who used to be first secretary of the local Communist Party, Mr Bagrov sat behind a huge desk clutching a handful of pens, and deserted by all but his secretary.

He now disavows Communism but keeps 54 volumes of Lenin on his bookshelf, and clings to the old habits and arguments that seem so unsuccessful with voters. 'Nothing in this room has changed. I see no need to reject history so quickly. Toppling statues from pedestals is not very cultured,' he said.

Leading article, page 13