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Regional Outlook : Crimea's President a Prisoner of His Own Separatist Revolt : Russia has lost interest in supporting Yuri Meshkov and his would-be ministate.


SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Yuri A. Meshkov, the pro-Russian separatist president of Crimea, gazes down from a prison window at the few dozen supporters standing vigil outside. He has plenty of idle time to ponder what went wrong.

The prison is his own sixth-floor presidential suite in Crimea's gleaming white Parliament building. He has secluded himself here since March 17, when Ukraine's central government in Kiev took away his job, three official cars, seven phone lines and 15 bodyguards.

An athletic, 49-year-old lawyer with a droopy brown mustache and silver mop of hair, he awakens each morning on an office couch and puts on a suit to look presidential for visitors. His wife and teen-age son, fearing for their lives, have fled to Moscow, but a recent bomb threat did not budge Meshkov from the building; if he left, they might lock him out.

Besides, what would he do out there? "I could go to the towns, the villages, but I would have to speak with certainty," he said in an interview, sounding puzzled by events that have left him powerless. "I could not tell people that everything is really decided in Moscow and Kiev."

Meshkov's demise is a tale about the pitfalls of leading a would-be ministate from the ruins of the Soviet Union. Elected in a landslide 16 months ago on a promise of independence and closer Crimean ties to Moscow, he presided instead over the collapse of what limited autonomy from Kiev the Crimean peninsula already had.

One reason this happened is a new geopolitical reality: As Russia fought to crush secessionists on its own soil in Chechnya, its leaders backed away from pro-Moscow separatists they had abetted in neighboring republics right after the Soviet breakup of 1991.

But just as frustrating for Crimea's separatists was a struggle for power and property that erupted among themselves, fed criminal gang warfare and wrecked their cause. While such post-Soviet battles plague most of the new republics, the tentative architecture of Crimean statehood was simply overwhelmed, leaving a frightened and impoverished people clamoring for order under any flag.

A Vermont-size peninsula jutting off the Ukrainian mainland into the Black Sea, Crimea is a coveted paradise. Catherine the Great called it the finest pearl in her crown. The Soviet elite vacationed in seaside palaces and health spas, behind mountains that block the chilling winds from the north and give the coast a pine-scented, Mediterranean climate.

But Crimea today is full of the kind of trouble vacationers like to escape. Ukraine's Interior minister calls it "a gathering place for international criminals." A war among four home-grown crime groups left 57 people dead in a recent four-month stretch. "There was a period when every day something blew up," recalls a Simferopol State University professor.

The turmoil goes back centuries, but was spurred in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine as a token of Slavic solidarity. The gift mattered little to ethnic Russians--two-thirds of Crimea's 2.7 million people--until the Soviet Union collapsed, isolating them in an independent Ukraine.

A Crimean war involving the two strongest armies of the former Soviet Union, as well as the Russian-led, Crimean-based Black Sea Fleet, has loomed as a possible since Alexander V. Rutskoi, then Russia's vice president, visited the peninsula in April, 1992, and called for its secession.

But so far, ethnic peace holds in Crimea. The drive for separatism is economic: As Ukraine's economy stagnated and Russia's began to reform, people here felt left behind and voted their pocketbook.

Meshkov, a populist from a party called Russia, won office in January, 1994, with 73% of the vote. Two months later his party won a majority in Parliament, and 78% of the voters called for a treaty putting Crimea and Ukraine on an equal footing.

Largely ignored at first by Kiev and Moscow, the winners started fighting among themselves.

"They looked at all those wonderful resorts, built for Communist general secretaries, and figured that whoever controls them will be the real master of Crimea," said Valery Lavrov of the Crimean Research Center of Humanities.

Yevgeny Saburov, a prominent Moscow economist brought in by Meshkov, boosted revenues with tax and currency-exchange reforms, easing dependence on subsidies from Kiev. But when he drew up a plan to sell off most state property within two years, the new Parliament blocked it.

Meshkov, himself beholden to wealthy campaign contributors, fought back by taking control of Crimea's 16,000-member police force and declaring war on corruption. The main result was that throughout last summer, the police were split into two forces--one loyal to Meshkov, one to Kiev's Interior Ministry.

By the time it was abolished, Meshkov's police force was broke and reportedly had turned to a crime gang for funding.

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