Ukraine Sees Crimean Move as Russian Ploy
A Crimean independence movement has replaced the Black Sea Fleet as the flashpoint in Russia-Ukraine dispute
THE Cafe Bagram in the Crimean capital is named after one of the fiercest battlegrounds of the Afghan war, and many of the men who gather here are veterans of that lost Soviet cause. Now the afghantsi, as the veterans are called, have turned the cafe into the informal headquarters for another crusade - Crimean independence.Skip to next paragraph
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Men such as Viktor Mezhak, a member of the local Crimean parliament, are the activist core of the Republic Movement of Crimea (RMC), which has emerged as a powerful political force in this semi-tropical peninsula in the Black Sea. They forced the Crimean parliament to adopt a declaration of independence from Ukraine on May 5, to be confirmed by a popular referendum Aug. 2.
For the Movement and its backers, this is a case of resistance to Ukrainian nationalism. They accuse the "nationalist-communist" government in Kiev of discriminating against the predominantly Russian-speaking population by replacing Russian television and radio programs with Ukrainian ones and by sending official documents written only in the Ukrainian language.
"We don't want nationalism here," parliament deputy Mezhak says over coffee at the Cafe Bagram, which is owned by by the movement's main backers, the Crimean firm IMPEX 55.
But for Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk and his allies in the Rukh nationalist movement the RMC is merely the front wedge of a Russian effort to reclaim Crimea as Russian territory. At the head of that drive is Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, himself an Afghan war hero, they say. In a clear reference to Mr. Rutskoi, Mr. Kravchuk accuses the RMC of being backed politically and financially by "certain forces at the highest level in the Russian leadership who view Ukraine as a vassal state." Trigger on commonwealth
The conflict over Crimea has now supplanted the earlier battle between Russia and Ukraine over the division of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet, which is largely based in the Crimean port of Sebastopol. The issue now may be the trigger for a Ukrainian decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth of Independent States, created after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some say a battle over Crimea could become a far larger and more dangerous version of the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia.
The confrontation reached a new height last week when the Russian parliament voted to annul a 1954 act of the Soviet government to transfer Crimea from the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation to Ukraine. Ukrainian President Kravchuk immediately condemned the move by the Russian legislature as "a violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity" and of agreements between the new countries on mutual respect of existing borders.
Ukrainian officials and leaders of a moderate faction in the Crimean parliament opposed to secession have warned in recent weeks that the political consequences of repealing the 1954 Act could provoke more regions in the new states to break away and could hasten Ukraine's departure from the commonwealth.
"Such a move in support of Crimean independence will cause a domino affect on the territory of the former USSR," stressed Volodymyr Hryniov, a deputy chairman of Ukraine's parliament during a stormy May 13th session.