Kiev tries to drag Crimea back in time

Time is clearly of the essence in turbulent Crimea, where Ukraine's leaders have set a deadline of next Sunday for the peninsula's mainly Russian- speaking population to join the same time zone as the rest of Ukraine. "There cannot be two different times in one nation," said one exasperated aide to Ukraine's President, Leonid Kuchma, omitting to recall that his country was once part of the 11-time-zone Soviet Union.

Ukraine's time wars broke out in 1994, when the authorities in Kiev signalled their commitment to full independence from Russia by switching Ukrainian clocks one hour back from Moscow time. Crimea's ethnic Russian leaders at that time were demanding sovereignty for their peninsula, and in a show of defiance they kept their clocks on Moscow time.

The struggle, which has ticked on to this day, had some strange consequences. In the Crimean port of Sevastopol, the home of the disputed former Soviet Black Sea fleet, Ukrainian government officials would have to pass through a time zone if they wanted a meeting with pro-Russian naval officers whose quarters were only minutes away.

Perhaps sensing time was on their side, Mr Kuchma and the central government in Kiev steadily reasserted their authority over Crimea after 1994, whilst making little serious effort to abolish the rebel time zone. However, the government switched tactics last month, making it clear that it expected Crimeans finally to fall in line.

For those ready to concede that their time is up, it could not be easier to comply with the government's order. All they will need to do on Sunday is leave their clocks and watches alone. The government has decided to move forward one hour to daylight saving time, meaning that if Crimeans resist the temptation to adjust their timepieces, they will end up in the same time zone as the rest of Ukraine.

Whether that will reduce tensions in Crimea, or pave the way to more amicable Russian-Ukrainian relations in general, is another matter. Thousands of people attended rallies in Crimea 10 days ago where demonstrators demanded unification with Russia and condemned Ukraine's efforts to forge closer ties with Nato.

The presidium of Crimea's parliament passed a resolution on 16 March complaining that "gangster methods, such as intimidation, threats, beatings and liquidation of aides to MPs, are being openly used against those MPs and officials who favour Ukrainian statehood".

Meanwhile, the Kiev government's efforts to extend the use of Ukrainian has sparked a backlash in the Russian-populated eastern region of Donetsk, which has restored Russian to equal official status.

Mr Kuchma, who once supported closer ties with Russia but nowadays defends Ukrainian independence, made clear this week he was fed up with Russia's attempts to dominate the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the loose successor to the Soviet Union. "We want to see this structure as a community of equals," he said.