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.
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.
"This could threaten political and economic reforms in Russia, as well as in Ukraine," cautioned Yuri Komov, leader of the so-called Democratic Fraction in the Crimean Supreme Soviet last week here in the Crimean capital.
The Russian parliament's decision follows a succession of events. After the May 5 Crimean parliament declaration of independence, the Ukrainian parliament annulled the decision, giving the Crimean legislature until May 20 to revoke it. After two days of tense debate, the Crimean Supreme Soviet, as the parliament is called, reversed its decision.
But that is unlikely to end the crisis. The separatist movement, which gathered 250,000 signatures for a referendum, draws strength in part from the hope of many residents that independence will somehow solve the economic woes they share with the rest of the former Soviet Union. And it has gathered support in the parliament from frustrations over a recent Ukrainian law which granted very limited powers of self-rule to the Crimean autonomous region.
"If Kravchuk had followed through on his campaign promises of a federal system for Ukraine, all of this could have been avoided," insisted moderate deputy Komov during a break in the stormy May 20 session, as militant protesters waving Russian and RMC flags chanted "down with the fascists" outside the Crimean parliament building in downtown Simferopol.
Russians form 60 percent of the 2.5 million people on this picturesque peninsula, which Catherine the Great annexed to Russia in the 18th century.
Best known for its natural beauty and seaside resorts such as the famous Yalta, Crimea used to be home to hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars, a Muslim people most of whom were forcibly exiled by Joseph Stalin in 1944. Many are now moving back to find that their old homes and land have been taken by Russians and Ukrainians who have dotted the coastline with dachas and retirement homes.
The headquarters of the Crimean Tatar movement, the Mejlis, is located in a dingy office building across town from the Cafe Bagram. The Tatars do not formally recognize the current Crimean parliament as representing their interests in the region. Their goal, which is supported by the influential Rukh movement in Kiev, is an autonomous Tatar republic within Ukraine.
While the RMC asserts that its referendum campaign only aims to support Crimeans "who want to be masters of their own destiny," its leaders do not conceal their hope that the region will eventually join Russia. Mezhak said their aim was to "make Crimea the region that will reunite the Slavic states into a union." Russian agenda
"They have managed to fool a lot of people," Crimean democrat Komov says about the RMC. "Crimea is not exactly a politically sophisticated region.... People are confused and frustrated with economic difficulties, high prices. The RMC has filled a political vacuum as a powerful and wealthy alternative to the former Communist apparatchiks still in power here. They are playing on peoples' fears of nationalism and now many believe that independence will solve all their problems. But beneath all of this, the RMC really wants reunification with Russia," Komov concluded.
Komov sees tensions increasing, but says hopefully: "I believe ... we can still prevent Crimea from becoming another Nagorno-Karabakh or Yugoslavia."