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Crimeans are caught in struggle between Russia and Ukraine

Anatoly Mashov, a mountain of a man who is deputy chairman of the Crimean parliament, quotes an old Ukrainian proverb: "When the landlords fight, the people suffer."

He is describing the plight of the Crimea, the historic and strategic peninsula about the size of Maryland that juts into the Black Sea.

With its harbors and sunny resort coast, its vineyards and farmland, the Crimea is now engulfed in the political ferment following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the formation of a successor Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

It risks getting caught between a newly independent Ukraine, of which it is legally a part, and Russia, which conquered it in the 18th century and ruled it almost continually until 1954 when, in a fit of generosity, Nikita Khrushchev signed it over to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic.

"Crimea will remain in the territory of Ukraine," Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk flatly declared again this week. "And if anyone wants to change that it would be a violation of the Helsinki agreements guaranteeing European borders."

"We think the problem of the Crimea has been finally solved," added Nikolai Mikhailchenko, a close Kravchuk adviser.

But try telling that to Crimea's 2.5-million inhabitants who are divided on what they want to be and who they want to rule them.

Simferopol, the Crimean capital, is less than 60 miles west along the Black Sea coast from Sevastopol, the home port of the former Soviet Black Sea fleet, which has become the focus of the political struggle between Russia and Ukraine.

The Ukrainian minority, about a quarter of Crimea's population, of course want to remain part of Ukraine, an "autonomous republic" with its own legislature something akin to a U.S. state.

Some leaders of the more than two-thirds Russian majority, on the other hand, are collecting signatures for a referendum, the fourth in little more than a year, calling for independence and close links with Russia.

"Crimea has never belonged to Ukraine," insisted Yuri Meshkov, a Russian lawyer who led a 10-day hunger strike last October to get the referendum law through the Crimean parliament of which he is a member.

He and his supporters, including budding businessmen and an organization of Afghanistan war veterans, have until April 3 to get the 180,000 signatures necessary for calling the referendum.

There is still another side to the argument, that of the Crimean Tatars, the original inhabitants who formed a majority before Catherine the Great wrested the Crimea from Turkey in 1783.

In 1944, Stalin expelled practically the whole Tatar population and sent them to Central Asia for allegedly collaborating with the Germans during their short World War II occupation.

Only in 1987, were the Tatars allowed to begin coming back, until today there are again nearly 190,000. This week, in one of those February "windows into spring" here that melted the snow from the streets, several hundred gathered under the big statue of Lenin still standing in Simferopol's main square, now renamed Fontannaja Square, demanding to be heard.

Most appear to fear the Russians more than the Ukrainians.

One of the pro-referendum campaigners is Alexander Klyabnikov, a bearded veteran who spent 26 months in Afghanistan and is now chairman of Meshkov's Republican Movement Crimea as well as the veterans' association. Crimea may be an "autonomous republic," he said, but it felt like a Ukrainian province.

The question referendum campaigners want to put on the ballot is independence with membership in a union with other states, that is, the CIS and a Russia that sees the commonwealth growing ever stronger under its own leadership. Ukraine, on the other hand, sees the CIS as no more than a temporary expedient to wind up the Soviet Union's affairs.

In the first referendum in January 1991, Crimeans voted for autonomy. Then in March 1991 came former President Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet-wide referendum approving a continuing, looser Soviet Union. Third came the contradictory Dec. 1 referendum in which Ukraine, including the Crimea, voted for independence, thus killing the Soviet Union.

In an interview in the well-stocked private club that seems to be headquarters of his movement, Klyabnikov pointed out that only 67 percent of the Crimea's population voted on Dec. 1 and of those only 54 percent voted yes. That, he said, really meant only about 35 percent approval.

Ukraine was imposing its language on television and in the schools, he charged, even though Crimea was nearly 100 percent Russian speaking; it was destroying the ruble by issuing its own coupons; it was making private enterprise almost impossible with crippling taxes.

Finally, he accused Ukraine of trying to "play the Tatar card."

At the Tatar rally in Fontannaja Square, that was not how the speakers saw it when they called for restoration of Tatar statehood and demanded nothing be done without their approval.

Thirty-one-year-old Riza Khalilov was born in the Central Asian city of Samarkand after Stalin deported his parents, and succeeded in returning only in 1987 after three earlier and unsuccessful tries. He worried about the draft of a future Crimean constitution he said was being discussed by some Russians.

"It fails to protect the rights of the whole population and especially the Crimean Tatars," he said. "The ethnic population should decide the future of Krim (Crimea)."

Side by side with the Tatar flag displaying a yellow trident against a blue background at the rally were the yellow and blue flags of the Ukrainian independence movement Rukh. Rukh fought long and hard for Ukrainian independence but having won it, now opposes Crimean independence.

As with the minority populations in former Soviet Georgia, that raises the crucial question of where independence should stop, an issue that could unravel Russia itself.

Only a few months ago, the five-sided Crimean parliament building, "our own Pentagon," was the headquarters of the local Communist Party Central Committee, and as always in these cases, it is by far the best and most opulent building in town.

Deputy chairman Mashov, a former functionary himself who once headed a successful collective farm, favors the proposed referendum, but he is also "fed up to the neck" with politics and sees the vote as a chance to make Crimea a "free economic zone."

"Geographically, it was born to be a free economic zone," he said.

With traditional Soviet ties between the republics cut, he fears economic disaster. Ukraine, he worries, could cut off the water coming to water-short Crimea through the canal from the Dnieper River.

While Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed two CIS agreements accepting the present borders, the CIS itself seems on the way to the ash heap. If Russia and Ukraine fall out, the Crimea could become the most dangerous issue between them, the flash point.

As a warning, the Russian parliament already has voted to set a commission to study the legality of the Crimea's 1954 transfer to Ukraine.

"Crimea is a handy little peninsula that could be used as a diplomatic tool. It could get out of hand at any time," warned a Western diplomat in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

"If I had the power of a genie, I would build a wall to protect the Crimea from stupidity. I would do it at once," Mashov said in his office this week.

Alas, it may already be too late.