On February 25, a Crimean district court canceled the registration of Crimean Speaker Leonid Hrach for the Crimean parliamentary elections, to be held on March 31, the same day as the Ukrainian elections. Hrach appealed. His appeal was turned down. Fearful of losing his fiefdom, Hrach has now resorted to playing with fire: He has called on Crimeans to boycott the elections and threatened Kyiv with secession.
The basis of the disqualification: Hrach had lied about the size of his real property. Even if legitimate, the court’s verdict appears to be little more than a pretext to throw Hrach out of the race. (Manipulations with property on the verge of the illegal are, after all, commonplace among the top echelons of Ukrainian powerbrokers.) Hrach interpreted it as such. Fingered “certain Kyiv-based offices” and Crimean criminal groups as being behind it, Hrach sold his disqualification to a crowd of his supporters in Simferopol as Kyiv’s revenge against a politician who dared defend Russian interests. He then threatened to hold a referendum for Crimea to join the Russian Federation. In Crimea, where pro-Russian sentiment is strong, such a statement bolstered the ranks of his sympathizers. Hrach, incidentally, is also the leader of Crimea’s communists.
Yet it was apparently not the crowd’s, but Moscow’s and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s attention Hrach wanted to get. Knowing with how much jealousy Kuchma treats prospective presidential contenders, Hrach declared at a rally in Simferopol on February 27 that he would run in the 2004 presidential elections. He has been the first Ukrainian politician to do so. “Let them fear me,” he said. In Moscow, which regards Crimea as its courtyard, Hrach’s statements did not go unnoticed. The leaders of several Russian political parties–including Gennady Zyuganov, Yury Luzhkov, Sergey Shoigu and Boris Nemtsov–released a joint appeal to Kuchma to restore Hrach’s registration. Hrach they defended as being “a consistent advocate of Russia-Ukraine friendship.”
Hrach then launched a counteroffensive against his Crimean rivals. On February 26, the Crimean electoral commission, which Hrach’s people control, rescinded the registrations of Serhy Kunitsyn–the Kyiv-backed former Crimean prime minister–and twenty-nine of Kunitsyn’s supporters. Kunitsyn’s bloc is Hrach’s primary in the Crimean election. Hrach apparently held Kunitsyn’s people responsible for his own disqualification. But Kunitsyn turned out to be a hard nut to crack. On February 28, the commission revoked its decision and offered apologies to Kunitsyn and his bloc.
Kyiv reacted calmly to all this. Kuchma was even sympathetic. Speaking in Odessa on February 27, he chided the Crimean court for disqualifying Hrach. “This was not the result of a lack of professionalism,” he said. “It was a deliberate action.” The Communist Party (CPU) chief ideologist, Georgy Kryuchkov, said that the CPU Central Committee had not authorized Hrach to threaten a secessionist referendum and warned against stirring up pro-Russian sentiment, which, he pointed out, could very possibly “destabilize” Crimea. At this point, Hrach apparently realized that he had gone too far. On February 28, he backtracked, saying that he had never in fact called for a secessionist referendum and accusing the media of misinterpretation.
If the disqualification verdict stands, Hrach will not be reelected to the Crimean parliament. This, however, would not be the end of his political career. Hrach holds the number eleven spot on the CPU list for the general elections, and will certainly make it to the Ukrainian parliament. But it would end his rule in Crimea. Kyiv may not actually want this. The criminal wars of the mid-1990s are over. The radical pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea has subsided under Hrach (who is regarded as a rather moderate pro-Russian player, despite his recent frenetic reaction to his disqualification). With Hrach gone, the fragile balance among Communists, Russian radicals, the Tatar population (which Kyiv suspects of harboring separatist sentiments) and pro-Kyiv politicians in Simferopol would be upset. Crimea could plunge back into interclan warfare. The disqualification may have been meant only as a warning to Hrach: After Kunitsyn’s ouster last year, Hrach’s rule has become very nearly royal. Kyiv may want a strong Hrach, but not one so strong as to ensure a landslide CPU election victory in Crimea and a defeat for pro-Kuchma parties (Ukrainian television and agencies, February 25-28).
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