UKRAINE'S acting prime minister, Yefim Zvyagilsky, began emergency talks with the Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, about the future of Crimea yesterday. Tension rose sharply at the weekend over the fate of the peninsula, which now belongs to Ukraine despite its centuries-old links to Russia. Diplomats warned of another Bosnia if the politicians fail to find an acceptable solution.
Mr Zvyagilsky's arrival in Moscow was delayed because he spent the first part of the day with President Leonid Kravchuk in Kiev, apparently discussing negotiating strategy. The bottom line for the Ukrainians is that, however much autonomy Crimea wins, it cannot be allowed to secede. 'Kiev will not allow any changes in the status of Crimea as an integral part of Ukraine,' President Kravchuk's office was quoted as saying before Mr Zvyagilsky set off.
The Crimean parliament, representing the local population, 70 per cent of whom are Russian, voted last Friday to adopt a constitution which would draw the peninsula closer to Russia. About 20 Ukrainian armoured personnel carriers moved on to the Black Sea peninsula over the weekend but the authorities in Kiev said their transfer had been planned some time ago and had nothing to do with the present crisis. Nevertheless, the tension was sufficient to prompt Vitaly Churkin, Russia's envoy to Bosnia, to remark that: 'A 'Yugoslav version' is the worst that could happen (in Crimea).'
Ukraine still has nuclear weapons and pointedly reminded the world over the weekend that, in its agreement with the United States and Russia to surrender the missiles, it also received a promise from Washington and Moscow of respect for its territorial integrity. The US and Germany yesterday expressed support for Ukraine's position.
Sensible politicians in Moscow accept Ukraine's independence and do not wish to start re-drawing frontiers, even though Russia does have a strong moral claim to Crimea. The peninsula was Russian from the 18th century until 1954 when the then Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, in a quite arbitrary decision, made a 'present' of it to his native Ukraine.
Yesterday President Boris Yeltsin's aide, Emil Paine, blamed local politicians on the peninsula for creating a situation which he called 'close to critical'. Mr Paine said Crimea's President, Yuri Meshkov, would do better to think of ways of improving the economy, especially developing tourism, rather than rocking the boat.
Even the chairman of Russia's Communist and nationalist-dominated parliament, Ivan Rybkin, distanced himself from Russians in Crimea who might be dreaming of secession. 'All that is going on in Crimea now is Ukraine's internal affair,' Mr Rybkin said. 'The peoples on this peninsula have the right to self-determination but within the framework of Ukraine and on the basis of the principles of the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe.'
Russia, however, has its hot- head nationalists who would like to confront Kiev. Likewise, Ukraine has radicals, some of whom were arguing yesterday that President Kravchuk should impose his will on Crimea. The difficult task of Mr Zvyagilsky and Mr Chernomyrdin will be to steer a path between these extremes. Their talks continue today.
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