Ousted Crimean president refuses to go quietly

His telephones have been cut off, his bodyguards disarmed, his official car repossessed and his job abolished by the Ukrainian parliament, but Yuri Meshkov insisted yesterday that he was still the legal president of the Crimean peninsula.

"The Ukrainian parliament has violated the basic principle of constitutional legality," Mr Meshkov complained at his office in the Crimean capital of Simferopol. In a statement, he called on the international community to intervene urgently to halt the "display of force" by Kiev against Crimea.

Ukraine's parliament, fed up with Mr Meshkov's attempts to shake off Ukrainian rule and forge closer ties with Russia, annulled the Crimean constitution on Friday and abolished the post of Crimean president. The assembly ordered that Mr Meshkov should be charged with abuse of office. A year ago, such steps might have outraged Crimea's ethnic Russian majority. But last weekend the only sign of protest was a small group of slogan- chanting pensioners outside the Crimean parliament, in the capital.

The lack of support for Mr Meshkov seems surprising, as he was elected president of Crimea in January 1994 with 73 per cent of the vote. But his 14 months in power have been characterised by such incompetence and confusion that Crimeans of all nationalities have lost patience with him.

He waited six months before nominating a government and annoyed the Crimean parliament by appointing non-Crimean Russians to important posts. The parliament stripped him of his powers in September, leaving him a figurehead president, but Mr Meshkov responded by suspending the assembly and locking up its building.

The Crimean economy has been staggering from crisis to crisis. Stories of official corruption and mafia influence over politics fill the press. Severe water shortages developed last summer and culminated in an outbreak of cholera on the peninsula that killed 20 people.

To cap it all, Mr Meshkov has discovered that his efforts to enlist Russia's support against the Ukrainian government are proving fruitless. Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister, Oleg Soskovets, travelled to Kiev yesterday and made a point of saying that the Crimean question was "a matter of internal Ukrainian politics".

Both President Boris Yeltsin and Russia's Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, refused to meet Mr Meshkov when he visited Moscow last year.

Russia's leaders, though keen to gain the right to dual citizenship for ethnic Russians in Ukraine, have ruled out territorial claims on Crimea.

"This is Ukraine's internal affair, even if we cannot remain indifferent to it," said Ivan Rybkin, Speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament.

Crimea was part of Russia until the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. The move meant little in the Soviet era but became significant after Ukraine won independence in 1991, not least because Crimea is home to the huge Black Sea fleet.

Russia's refusal to support Crimean separatism has helped to improve Russian-Ukrainian relations over the past year. The two countries are completing a friendship treaty, expected to be signed when Mr Yeltsin visits Kiev later this year.

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