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Crimean Elections Shake Ukrainian Government

Threat of secession casts uncertainty over Ukraine's nuclear arms accord

Wearing a light dusting of snow, this capital of independent Ukraine retains a charming order and calm in contrast to the bustle and turbulence of Moscow.

There is little sign of panic here following the victory of a Russian nationalist in Jan. 30 elections held on the strategic peninsula of Crimea, a vote that many believe heralds the breakup of Ukraine and portends new tensions with the Russian colossus to the east.

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Ukrainian officials and politicians express confidence that Crimean secession is not on the agenda. They point to signs that the victorious Yuri Meshkov, who is reported to be coming here today to meet President Leonid Kravchuk, is already softening his rhetoric as he gets ready to assume power.

``I think political wisdom will prevail in Crimea,'' Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk says. The political forces ``understand where is the edge over which it is impossible to go beyond,'' he says.

But beneath this typically stolid Ukrainian response, there are signs of deep concern over the impact of the Crimean vote. If Mr. Meshkov goes ahead with plans to hold a referendum on Crimean ``independence'' simultaneous with a March 27 parliamentary election, it will trigger a confrontation with the Kiev authorities, officials admit.

While Ukrainian officials carefully acknowledge the moderation of the Russian government's reaction to the Crimean vote to date, there is growing concern that Moscow might, perhaps under pressure from its own nationalists, intervene into the Crimean crisis. Any move in that direction, officials warn, could compel Ukraine to reconsider its recent trilateral agreement with the United States and Russia to completely yield the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union.

Ukrainian President Kravchuk urged the parliament yesterday to ratify the trilateral agreement before going into preelection recess. The urgency of this has grown in the eyes of Ukrainian officials because of the events in Crimea.

The trilateral agreement commits the US and Russia, once the START I disarmament treaty enters into force and Ukraine signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a nonnuclear weapons state, to ``respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders'' of Ukraine. ``This statement is a sort of obligation by Russia,'' says Anton Buteiko, foreign policy adviser to the president.

The Crimean election has quickly become a ``testing ground for this agreement,'' believes Environment Minister Yuri Kostenko, a key opponent of rapid nuclear disarmament. Russian interference in Crimea ``will undermine the perspective for implementation of the trilateral statement and certainly will negatively influence the process of nuclear disarmament in Ukraine,'' says Deputy Foreign Minister Tarasyuk.

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The senior official predicts, ``Public opinion will be considerably pro-nuclear in case external forces try to intervene into Ukraine's internal affairs.'' That public voice ``will force parliament to reconsider its decision for a nonnuclear Ukraine.''

In conversations, both government officials and Ukrainian nationalist politicians dismiss the idea that the Crimean vote is the beginning of the breakup of the country. They reject the scenario, reportedly drawn in a US intelligence report, of Ukraine dividing geographically and ethnically between the Ukrainian-speaking Catholic west and the Russian-speaking Orthodox east.

``A split between western and eastern Ukraine is practically impossible,'' says deputy Serhiy Holovaty, a member of the parliament's foreign affairs committee. ``I can't see any serious conflict between Russians and Ukrainians as ethnic groups.'' He also argues that while the population in the east tends to be Russian-speaking, the majority is still ethnically Ukrainian.

But deputy Alexander Charodejev, a Russian engineer from the Donbass coal-mining center in the east, accuses Ukrainian nationalists from the west of feeding resentment. He runs through a well-known litany of issues - the imposition of Ukrainian language, the breaking of economic ties with Russia, even the promotion of land privatization - that are encouraging an east-west confrontation.

Mr. Charodejev lays out a scenario that could lead to disintegration in Ukraine. ``If there is an attempt to secede, no one will be able to prevent Crimea from doing this. This will lead to a strengthening of nationalist sentiments in Ukraine, and to further striving of Donbass, Odessa, and other [Russian-speaking] regions to autonomize and secede from Ukraine.''

Ukrainian nationalists admit there is a growing sentiment in favor of closer economic union with Russia, fed by the relatively worse economic conditions here. Like the vote for Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the Russian elections, the vote for Meshkov in Crimea was really a protest against economic depression, argues Vyacheslav Chornovil, leader of the nationalist Rukh movement.

``It doesn't mean the majority of the population is striving for independence or reunification with Russia,'' Mr. Chornovil says. ``They wanted change.''

Many such politicians put the blame for this on the failure of the Kravchuk government over the last two years to take steps away from the old state-run economy. ``In all spheres, Ukraine is faced with one huge problem: the inability of the leadership of Ukraine to carry out economic reform,'' says Ihor Derkatch, a parliamentarian from western Ukraine.

Such arguments lead many Ukrainians to hope that new elections for parliament and president, scheduled for March and June, will yield a more reformist government and cut short the threat of division in Ukraine.

But time may be short for such moves, some worry. ``The breakup of Ukraine is not the most dreadful thing,'' says deputy Charodejev. ``The most horrible thing is the bloody breakup of Ukraine.''

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