World's Hardest Place To Pledge Allegiance

Multiple grand old flags test loyalty, patience of Crimea's ethnic Russians, Ukrainians

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MODERATE citizens around the world endure passionate posturing at the hands of their elected leaders, but nowhere more so than in the Crimean peninsula, teetering on the seesaw of power between Russia and Ukraine.

Nationalists in Ukraine and Russia made headlines here last month when they ripped each other's flags to shreds in an ongoing spat over who rules the Crimea, currently under Ukraine's flag despite its two-thirds ethnic Russian majority.

''Almost every day now somebody's kissing somebody else's flag or tearing it to pieces,'' says Igor Perekhod, a mathematics professor at the State University in Simferopol, the regional capital. ''I've lost track already.''

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But Crimea's officials have taken heed of nationalism, and the regional parliament voted to hold a referendum among Crimeans in June over the republic's status.

Much bigger players are watching closely. While Russia makes no formal claims on the region -- which it controlled for 200 years until 1954 -- it does claim some responsibility for the ethnic Russians here.

Russia at first kept out of a crackdown on Russian separatists by Ukraine in March and April, during which Kiev abolished the Crimea's regional constitution and the post of the Crimean president, then held by ethnic Russian Yuri Meshkov.

But Russian President Boris Yeltsin has since refused to sign a friendship treaty with Ukraine until the issue is resolved. And in what was perhaps a message for Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev recently threatened to use force to protect Russians living in former Soviet republics.

Most of Crimea's 2.7 million citizens manage to keep cool amid the fracas. ''Certain people view [the Ukrainian flag] as the symbol of the Ukrainian nationalists who sided with the Germans during the war,'' says Valeri Temnenko, a political analyst in Simferopol. ''Of course the population as a whole could care less about the whole question.''

The flag still stirs passion, however. In mid-April, a group of pensioners attacked a Moscow TV crew outside Simferopol's city council building.

Put up to the job by Russian nationalist deputies in the regional parliament, the pensioners were to disrupt the ceremonial raising of the Ukrainian flag next to the Crimean one, according to the local Krimskaya Pravda newspaper. The ceremony, which was to have included an Orthodox priest's blessing of the Ukrainian flag and the singing of an ode to Ukrainian statehood, was canceled after the incident.

Ukraine's flag was finally flown over the city council building later that day, presumably after the agitators had gone to bed. ''To raise flags at night like a thief hardly adds to the authority of the [Ukrainian] state whose symbol raises such passions among its own people,'' protested Krimskaya Pravda.

Such flare-ups, whether contrived or not, keep passions simmering among sensitive Russians and Ukrainians, and help keep Crimea's status in limbo.

Every day, a small crowd of pensioners gathers outside the Crimean parliament to show solidarity with the separatist politicians inside, who called for the referendum against Kiev's wishes.

When asked why Ukraine's flag does not yet fly over the parliament, one man replies, ''They're afraid. [Ukraine's government] already knows what we'll do if they try it.''

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