Kiev, Kremlin Battle Over Ships

Ukraine, Russia debate status of Soviet Black Sea Fleet at summit today

WHEN Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma meets his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, for a summit today to discuss the disputed Black Sea Fleet, he will have one less problem on his mind.

Ukrainian authorities are on the brink of winning their long tussle with pro-Russian separatists in the Crimea, where the fleet is based. Crimean parliamentarians here, who have been leading the fight for expanded autonomy for their heavily Russian-populated peninsula, on May 31 called off a referendum they had planned on Crimea's status.

But a dispute over who controls the Black Sea Fleet, left over from the Soviet Union, still seems intractable even after three years of negotiations between Russia and recently independent Ukraine.

Moscow insists that the port town of Sevastopol should be classified as the Russian fleet's base and be under Russian control.

But Kiev is offering only to allow Russian ships to share Sevastopol's port facilities, keeping the town clearly under Ukrainian sovereignty.

The issue is the thorniest in Ukraine's uncomfortable relationship with its giant neighbor. It is complicated by the fact that two-thirds of Crimea's population is Russian, most of whom are unenthusiastic about being Ukrainian citizens.

Many ethnic Russians here would like to reunite somehow with their historic motherland, pointing out that only in 1954 did then-Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev give the Crimea - which had been part of Russia - to Ukraine.

In the regional capital of Simferopol, there is little evidence that one is in Ukraine rather than in Russia. Russian is used in conversation, and flights from the city airport to Moscow leave from the domestic terminal, not the international one.

But in recent months, Crimean political leaders have found themselves unable to retaliate as Kiev has slowly but surely tightened the screws, clamping down on their political ambitions.

"Frankly speaking, we are helpless," says Sergei Tsekov, speaker of the Crimean parliament and standard-bearer for pro-Russians here. "The militia, the Army, the police, the judicial powers, the government, none of them obey us any more."

Symbolic of the local leadership's impotence is former Crimean President Yuri Meshkov, who has barricaded himself in his office since his post was abolished by the Ukrainian parliament last March.

Mr. Meshkov, says Ukrainian presidential adviser Dmytro Vydrin, "is nothing more than the smile on the face of the Cheshire Cat."

Nor could the local parliament do anything about the Ukrainian parliament's edict annulling the 1992 Crimean Constitution, which Kiev regarded as separatist. Last month, in line with Ukraine's demand, deputies began debating a new constitution, calling off the referendum they had hoped would endorse the old one.

This mood of compliance seems to acknowledge that, as one Western diplomat puts it, "Crimeans have nowhere else to go."

It also reflects the fact that popular opinion among Crimea's residents, despite the heavy predominance of ethnic Russians, is not running as strongly as it once did on the question of ties with Russia.

Opposition to an accommodation with Kiev is fiercest in the port town of Sevastopol, where retired Russian Naval officers make up much of the population. But even they are more nostalgic for the old Soviet Union than anxious to be part of Russia.

"We consider that Ukraine is part of Russia, and we would like to restore the previous historical entity, Russia, with all the territories of the former Soviet Union," explains radical pro-Russian deputy Alexander Kroglov, who is from Sevastopol.

Elsewhere the mood is close to indifferent. "It doesn't matter a bit to me, nor to my friends" whether Crimea is part of Ukraine or Russia, says Katerina Medvedeva, a stewardess in her late teens on a ferry to Istanbul. "What matters most to me is that things stay calm."

"As long as Russia keeps its hands off, Crimeans will grudgingly accept Ukrainian sovereignty even if they are not very happy with it," says the diplomat.

Much pro-Russian sentiment, observers here say, stems from economic envy toward Russia and could change if conditions here improved.

"People want to be part of Russia not because they are being repressed or discriminated against, but simply because they think that it would be better for them economically," argues Refat Chubarov, a Crimean Tatar member of parliament who supports Ukrainian rule over the region. "I call it sausage psychology."

But that psychology can easily be played upon, he adds. As Moscow tries to get the best possible deal on Sevastopol, separatism in the Crimea could still be a powerful weapon in Russian hands.

Kiev is concerned that as Russia prepares for parliamentary elections in December, Moscow will not be in a mood to make any concessions on the Black Sea Fleet.

In that context, says Ukrainian deputy Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk, an end to the constitutional crisis in Crimea can only strengthen Kiev's hand. "When the issue is closed politically, there will be no ground for external forces to interfere," says Mr. Tarasyuk. "It will help avoid any indirect difficulties between Moscow and Kiev."

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