Russian nationalist Yuri Meshkov became the first elected president of Ukraine’s Crimean republic Sunday on a politically explosive promise to join the strategic Black Sea peninsula with Russia, early returns showed.
Although Meshkov has retreated in recent days from the position that Crimea should formally secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia, his election is likely to stir nationalist passions in both countries and raise the odds against Ukraine’s promised surrender of its nuclear weapons.
With one-third of the ballots counted, election officials said early today that Meshkov, a 45-year-old lawyer, was winning 70% of the vote in a runoff against Crimean Parliament Speaker Nikolai Bagrov, who favors Ukrainian rule of the peninsula.
Long a geopolitical prize and balmy seaside playground, Crimea was seized by Russia from the Turks in the 18th Century and transferred to Ukraine in 1954, when both countries were part of the Soviet Union. Ethnic Russians still make up 68% of its 2.5 million residents.
Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, Russian nationalists have campaigned to regain the fleet and the peninsula, raising ethnic tensions among Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars in Crimea. Four political figures were assassinated during the two-month election campaign, including a fleet officer and two Tatar leaders who opposed Russian rule.
Voters leaving the polls Sunday suggested that Meshkov had won not only by appealing to fellow Russian nationalists but also by capitalizing on general discontent over Ukraine’s soaring inflation. He promised that life would be better in alliance with relatively prosperous Russia.
There had been little doubt about the winner since the first round of the election two weeks ago, when Meshkov outpolled Bagrov 2 to 1 in a field of six but fell short of an absolute majority. Bagrov was hurt in the runoff by his Old Guard Communist image.
The biggest uncertainty of the runoff was Meshkov’s exact position on Crimea’s political status and what would happen if he tried to change its status. While Russian leaders kept silent, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk warned on Jan. 20 that he will overrule any move to redraw Ukraine’s borders.
After some waffling, Meshkov said Crimean voters should decide their future in a referendum March 27, when Ukrainians elect a new national Parliament. He said the question to voters would be: “Are you for an independent Crimean republic in a union with other states?”
On Sunday, the candidate further clarified his position as he voted in the company of six bodyguards. He said his earlier calls for secession were “simple talk for the voters” and that he favored only a currency union with Russia.
“There will be no confrontation,” he said. “We will not break away from Ukraine.”
Still, Meshkov’s foes believe that he will assert de facto independence from Kiev, tempting a forceful showdown in which the Russian-dominated Black Sea Fleet would come to Crimea’s defense.
“For six months, we’ll have a war of laws, with Crimea adopting laws and Kiev rescinding them,” said Vitaly Fesenko, a Ukrainian political activist in Crimea. “Then we might have a civil war.”
Fesenko doubts that Ukrainian leaders will prevail. “We’ve sent them dozens of appeals to stop what’s happening down here, and they’ve done nothing,” he said. “We feel betrayed.”