KIEV, Ukraine — In a development that could inflame Russian-Ukrainian relations and derail the nuclear disarmament agreement that President Clinton signed in Moscow last week, Crimean separatists have scored a stunning electoral victory in the peninsula's first presidential elections.
Five candidates who want the strategic Black Sea outpost to seek independence from Ukraine--or to rejoin Russia--won a total of 73% of the vote, according to preliminary results Monday. A nearly unknown candidate who was backed by Russian neo-fascist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky and who had promised to defend the interests of the Russian majority in Crimea won 13.5% of the vote.
By contrast, the former Communist boss who supports keeping Crimea an autonomous republic within Ukraine won only 17.5%.
Because no candidate received a majority, a runoff will be held Jan. 30, with separatist candidate Yuri Meshkov favored to become the new president of the region.
Last week, Russian and U.S. officials said they feared a secessionist movement in Crimea could pit Ukrainian nationalists against Russian extremists. Such a conflict could torpedo the agreement that calls for Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for guarantees that Russia will respect Ukraine's existing borders, which include Crimea.
"That's the nightmare scenario--for everybody," a senior U.S. official said.
The issue is so touchy that Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's press secretary, Vyacheslav V. Kostikov, refused to accept a question last week about Crimea's possible impact on the disarmament deal.
"You'll put our president in a very awkward position if you ask this question," Kostikov said. "You must understand that this is an explosive issue."
The lovely, subtropical Crimean peninsula juts smack into the center of the Black Sea, making it a geopolitical prize that has been fought over for centuries.
But though populated by about 105 different ethnic groups, it was considered Russian territory until Moscow gave it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 to celebrate "Ukrainian-Russian friendship."
Crimean restiveness was evident even before Ukraine achieved independence from the Soviet Union. In January, 1991, Crimeans voted for autonomy, and on May 5, 1992, while Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk was on a visit to the United States, the peninsula declared independence. Crimea quickly rescinded the declaration after the Russian Supreme Soviet declared the 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine unconstitutional.
Russians make up 68% of the 2.5 million residents, and Ukrainians, at 28%, consider themselves an embattled minority. But 83% of all residents--including Ukrainians--say Russian is their native language--and many see in Russia a prosperous homeland.
Opinion polls taken in August--polling has since been banned--found that 62% of Crimeans wanted some kind of reunion with Russia. Some secessionists are Russian military families in Sevastopol, while others are retirees who long for the re-establishment of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, more than 200,000 ethnic Tatars, deported by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1944 for allegedly collaborating with the Germans, have returned from exile in Uzbekistan and are camped out in tents and shantytowns. Tatar leaders, wary of Russia, want Crimea to remain part of Ukraine.
They have supported Nikolai Bugrov, the former Communist boss who is now Speaker of the new Crimean Parliament. Bugrov placed second with 17.5% of the vote; separatist Meshkov, head of the Crimean Republican Party and of the Russian Society, got 38.5%.
"Meshkov is an extremist," said Vasyl Bohutsky, director of Crimea's only Ukrainian-language newspaper, "Crimean Chamber." "He has said that his first act as president would be to hold a referendum on joining Russia."
Like many Ukrainians, Bohutsky believes that a separatist victory could bring armed conflict.
"People are poor and angry," he said. "Just throw in a match and it will explode."
Since November, two politicians have been killed, two beaten and the Tatar movement's headquarters bombed with Molotov cocktails. The paramilitary Ukrainian National Self-Defense group is reportedly preparing for conflict.
U.S. officials note that by signing the agreement on Ukraine's nuclear weapons Friday, Yeltsin has renewed Russia's commitment to respect Ukraine's borders.
But Russian parliamentarian Zhirinovsky's ideal map of Russia includes both Ukraine and Crimea.
"We will protect Russian people wherever they are," Zhirinovsky said last week, endorsing the separatist leader of the Russian Party of the Crimea, Sergei Shuvainikov, for president.
Such rhetoric awakens Ukrainians' worst fear: Russia meddling in Crimean ethnic strife. Kravchuk, who is trying to persuade the Ukrainian Parliament to give up nuclear weapons, has argued that Ukraine faces no outside military threat. Violence in the Crimea could weaken his case.
Efron, of The Times' Moscow bureau, reported from Kiev and Moscow.