PRAGUE, 9 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The results of the month-long signature-raising campaign in support of a referendum were announced on 7 February.
Vasyl Kyseliov, who heads the Crimean branch of the Party of Regions and is a deputy speaker of the Crimean parliament, says the results are encouraging.
"In less than a month we have collected more than 300,000 signatures," Kyseliov said. "To have a referendum 150,000 are required -- or 10 percent of all voters."
Strength In Numbers
The Party of Regions supports the idea of granting Russian the status of a second state language throughout Ukraine, and has found overwhelming support for this issue in Crimea. Kyseliov says that the success of the signature drive cannot be ignored.
"We have the Crimean constitution and the law on referendums in Ukraine, according to which a referendum in the Crimea is possible," Kyseliov said. "The idea is to have a consultative referendum. And the authorities will have to react when in less than in a month we have collected [so many signatures.]"
Crimea enjoys special status as an autonomous republic of Ukraine, and has its own constitution, legislature, and government. According to the 2001 census, there were 2.03 million people in Crimea, with more than two-thirds of them listing Russian as a native language.
Andreiy Ivanets, who heads the Simferopol branch of the pro-presidential Law and Justice party, says it is no surprise that the Russian-speaking majority in Crimea supports the idea, but believes that holding a referendum is not the solution. Ivanets suggests that the Ukrainian parliament would be the best forum for finding a solution, and accuses the Party of Regions of resorting to nationalism to gain support ahead of the parliamentary vote.
"This event organized by the Party of Regions is clearly a part of their election campaign," Ivanets said. "It illustrates the behavior of the Party of Regions, which was in power for a long time. As we know that [Party of Regions head] Viktor Yanukovych was a prime minister for two years but he never raised such problems."
Ivanets worries that highlighting the Russian language issue could stoke national tensions.
"As you know, there some 60 percent are ethnic Russians in the national composition of the Crimea," Ivanets said. "So, of course it is not very difficult to collect their signatures in support of the Russian language. Of course, the majority of those who are signing are ethnic Russians."
The Russian Card
But Stuart Hensel of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit says that playing the Russian card ahead of the elections is a wise strategic move on the part of Party of Regions head Yanukovych.
Playing on Russian sentiments in Crimea could prove to be a recipe for success in the March elections.
"He [Yanukovych] used it with some considerable success in the 2004 election, even if he ended up not winning that one," Hensel said. "And I think it was quite obvious that he would try to do it this time around too. If indeed the referendum question gets to take place at the same time as the election in March, I think that's going to be a very successful way of mobilizing Crimean voters to come out to the polls and a large percentage of them will support him. So, I think it is quite a smart move on his part."
Hensel also notes that as Ukraine endured political turmoil at the end of 2005, some pro-Russian leaders in the country's east made calls for greater autonomy from Kyiv. Those calls were eventually toned down, but the issue remains just under the surface.