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Crimea Vote Sunday Could Trigger Struggle for Region : Europe: Citizens to be asked if they want more autonomy from Ukraine. It could push efforts to rejoin Russia.


SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Great powers have tussled for control over the scenic, strategic Crimean peninsula ever since the Romans clashed with Greek city-states before the birth of Christ. The British, Russian and Turkish empires collided here in 1854, and a century later Adolf Hitler tried to make Crimea a German Gibraltar.

On Sunday, Crimea will hold a controversial vote that could launch a bid to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia. Some fear that the ensuing struggle could once again turn this Black Sea peninsula into a geopolitical tinderbox.

"There is no cause for alarm; everything will be peaceful," Crimea's newly elected president, Yuri A. Meshkov, promised this week.

But the plebiscite has already triggered a war of words between Ukrainian authorities and Meshkov, who won 73% of the vote in January elections after promising to seek independence from Ukraine and reunification with Russia.

Students of history shudder at the prospect of Russia and Ukraine, two increasingly nationalistic nuclear powers already at odds over how to divide the Black Sea fleet, competing for hegemony over Crimea.

Ukraine has increased its troop strength in Crimea from 18,000 about two years ago to 51,000 today, according to the Russian military newspaper Red Star. Meshkov has demanded the "demilitarization" of the peninsula, to no avail.

Although no one expects armed strife soon, many see in Crimea the ingredients for another of the ethnic and political conflicts that have flamed up across the former Soviet Union.

"Border disputes are bloody: Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, the Trans-Dnestr," warned Olexander P. Kulyk, editor-in-chief of Crimea's only Ukrainian language newspaper, the Crimean Chamber, who sits near a window punctured with a bullet hole left by an unknown ill-wisher.

Server Kerimov, a leader of the Crimean Tatar movement, which believes that Crimea should remain an autonomous republic inside Ukraine, agreed: "The danger of civil war here exists."

About 250,000 Tatars, deported from Crimea by Stalin in 1944, have returned from exile in Siberia and Uzbekistan in the last five years. Most remain impoverished, unemployed and mistrustful of Russia. But the indigenous Tatars are badly outnumbered in a population of 2.7 million. Russians make up 68% of Crimean residents, Ukrainians 28%.

Well-to-do Russians have been summering in the Crimea since the czars built a dacha here in the 19th Century, and the peninsula remained the favorite vacation spot of the Soviet elite. Whoever controls Crimea inherits not only a strategic military outpost in the Black Sea but some of the best real estate in the former Soviet Union.

Nikita S. Khrushchev, the former Soviet leader, gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 as a token of Russian-Ukrainian friendship, a meaningless gesture until the Soviet Union dissolved.

The drive for Crimean independence started as soon as Russian residents realized that they had become Ukrainian subjects.

However dreadful the Russian economy, it looks positively rosy compared to that of Ukraine. Ukrainian inflation is running two to three times the Russian rate. Crimean production dropped 25% in the last year, employment fell by 6%, and living standards plunged for pensioners, who make up about a third of the population.

In his election campaign, Meshkov blamed Kiev for failing to conduct economic reform and promised to hold a referendum on Crimea's status.

Ukrainian authorities, noting that Ukraine's existing borders are guaranteed by international law and by a Ukrainian-Russian treaty, declared such a referendum illegal.

Meshkov promptly announced that the voting would be an "opinion poll," not a referendum.

Voters will be asked to approve broader autonomy for Crimea, more presidential powers and dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship for residents--all steps toward de facto Crimean independence.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk has urged Meshkov to back down, warning him not to be "too big for your boots."

Undaunted, the Crimean Election Commission announced Tuesday that the poll will proceed.

Although the vote will not be legally binding, Meshkov is expected to win an overwhelming "yes" vote that will strengthen his bargaining position with Kiev as he seeks more autonomy for Crimea.

Despite this show of brinkmanship, Meshkov is toning down his secessionist rhetoric.

"There was never a question of reuniting with Russia," the 47-year-old lawyer said. What Crimea seeks, he said, is an "economic union" with Russia.

What Meshkov--who symbolically put his peninsula Thursday in the same time zone as Moscow--plans for Crimea sounds like Monaco on the Black Sea: a free trade zone, resort and tax haven that would attract foreign investors despite the obvious political risks. Also proposed is a free currency zone where the Ukrainian karbovanets, the Russian ruble and the U.S. dollar would all be accepted.

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