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Ukraine: Crimean Voters Likely To Split Along Ethnic Lines

  • Lily Hyde

The most ethnically mixed of all Ukraine's regions, Crimea has large populations of Russians and Crimean Tatars, as well as Ukrainians. The difference of interest among these groups means the Crimean vote in Sunday's presidential election is likely to be split along ethnic lines.

Sevastopol, 12 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the first round of the presidential election, two weeks ago (Oct. 31), Communist Party candidate Petro Symonenko took more votes in Crimea than President Leonid Kuchma. But the Black Sea peninsula is home not only to the most ardent communists in Ukraine -- many of them ethnic Russians -- but also to some of the most determined anti-communists -- the ethnic Tatars.

Crimea is more than half Russian, and about 12 percent Tatar. The rest of the population is Ukrainian.

Much of Crimea's ethnic Russian population has never accepted the peninsula's new status as Ukrainian. The port of Sevastopol was home to the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, and Russia's portion of the fleet is still based there. With a Communist majority, the Crimean parliament has been vocal in its criticism of Kuchma's government in Kyiv. Many of Crimea's Russians support Symonenko.

The Crimean Tatars, for their part, are virulently opposed to the Communist candidate. The ethnic Tatars were deported from Crimea under Stalin in a brutal upheaval that killed many of them. Returned to the region after Ukraine achieved independence in 1991, they accuse the communists of genocide.

Reminders of the Soviet past are inescapable in Sevastopol. This week, red banners congratulated residents on the anniversary of the great October revolution, and red posters encouraged them to vote for the Communist, Symonenko.

Sevastopol's majority-Russian population and status as a Russian base has led Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov to call for the city to be returned to Russia. Luzhkov has provided housing, a school and a medical center, and has refurbished the officers' quarters for the Russian fleet. Given the economic decline of Sevastopol, many residents agree that Russia would be a better master.

The relationship with Russia is a major election issue for Crimeans. Communist candidate Symonenko has said he supports closer union with Russia. President Kuchma, however, wants closer ties with the West.

In the first round of voting, Kuchma and Symonenko were neck and neck in Sevastopol, with Kuchma barely ahead. Vasily Parkhomenko, who heads the overwhelmingly Communist city council, predicts that Symonenko will take the city in the second round.

"The main reason is that in the last election Sevastopol voted for Kuchma 90 percent. As far as I know, most Sevastopolites feel that Kuchma has not carried out his pre-election program in any way -- political and economic and introducing Russian as a second state language. Most people, therefore, refuse to trust him. There's also a second aspect which is specific to Sevastopol. In Sevastopol live a high number of Russians: 74 percent. And they prefer the candidate who is oriented towards friendship with Russia, not the West but Russia."

On the main street, where campaigners for Symonenko and Kuchma hand out leaflets, angry voters shouted and even spat at each other. Kuchma's posters were restrained compared with the red flags, Lenin portraits, and anti-Western, anti-Semitic cartoons produced by the Communists.

Oksana, a campaigner who did not want to give her last name, was handing out pro-Kuchma materials. She admitted that Kuchma does not appear popular in Sevastopol, saying part of the reason is because he is associated with the West.

"Russians are everywhere and the reason for the unpopularity of NATO is because for a very long time it took the shape of the enemy. The unpopularity of Kuchma in Sevastopol is because there's a big percentage of war pensioners, and a big percentage of war factories that no longer operate. As well as the problem of language. This is a town of Russian glory, and when we start to say it is a Ukrainian [naval] base and a Ukrainian town on the territory of Ukraine, again it clashes with old habits. It's all a problem of the mind. Give us time."

Elsewhere in Crimea, the Tatars are campaigning actively for Kuchma. Thousands of Crimean Tatars died when they were deported from Crimea by the Communists under Stalin, and the survivors were not permitted to return to their homeland until Ukrainian independence at the beginning of the decade. Their commitment is not pro-Kuchma, but anti-communist.

Remzi Ablaev is a deputy head of the Tatar political organization, the Mejlis. He says the Tatars consider themselves to be the only true Ukrainian patriots in Crimea.

"It's said everywhere that in Crimea the [true] Ukrainians are Crimean Tatars. Not the Ukrainians, but the Tatars. We are for an independent Ukraine, indivisibility, so that no one shifts the borders and no one interferes in our internal problems. That's our position. And of course that's a pro-government position."

The Russian campaigners for both Kuchma and Symonenko in Sevastopol compared the Tatars to the Chechens. Like the Chechens, the Tatars are Muslims, and they have openly condemned Russian offensive in Chechnya. Pro-Kuchma Sevastopolites said Kuchma has saved Crimea from a similar conflict with the Tatars. Some Communists, however, echoed the Tatars' worst nightmare, saying a Symonenko government would take a hard line against the Tatars.