Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 79

The leader of Crimean Communists and speaker of Crimea’s outgoing parliament, Leonid Hrach, is celebrating victory in Crimea’s March 31 parliamentary elections. He had been disqualified for a faulty property declaration on February 25. His name, however, remained on the ballot, because the constituency commission could not muster a quorum to remove it. And on election day, over 70 percent of the voters in Simferopol constituency number 25 voted for him. Hrach’s appeals on the disqualification were denied.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma publicly rebuked Hrach for making a stir, accusing him of disloyalty to the government in Kyiv. Kuchma also mocked a well-advertised project of a giant bridge between Crimea and Russia over the Strait of Kerch, which Hrach was going to build with assistance from Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. This was generally interpreted as the beginning of the end of Hrach’s rule in Crimea. But the Crimean Court of Appeal allowed Hrach to appeal to Ukraine’s Supreme Court, which he did on March 30.

Contrary to general expectations, the high court ruled this past Friday that Hrach’s disqualification from the Crimean election was illegal. The same day (April 19), the constituency electoral commission in Simferopol confirmed, in a vote of 8-7, Hrach’s election to the new Crimean parliament and registered him as a Crimean people’s deputy.

At a press conference in Kyiv on April 19, a triumphant Hrach confirmed his intention to run in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election. He denied that this would cause a conflict between him and Petro Symonenko, the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU) leader. Hrach has been elected not only to the Crimean parliament, but also to the Ukrainian one, from the CPU list. Had the Supreme Court confirmed his disqualification in Crimea, the ambitious and charismatic Hrach would have had no choice but move to Kyiv and challenge the leadership of grayish Symonenko in the CPU. Now Hrach is expected to prefer certain leadership in Crimea (where he is the most powerful politician and appears to be sure of regaining his post as parliamentary speaker) to uncertainty in Kyiv.

Regardless of whether Hrach is re-elected as speaker, his return to the Crimean parliament will certainly spoil the game for Kyiv-oriented centrists. The teams of Serhy Kunitsyn (a former Crimean premier) and Valery Horbatov (the current man in the post) had hurried to Kuchma after March 31 with the news that they had created a sixty-seven-member majority coalition in the 100-seat Crimean legislature. With Hrach back in the saddle, however, this count looks too optimistic. Many who had promised to back the centrists may well now jump on the bandwagon and change their allegiance. Along with popular support in Crimea (Hrach’s bloc won the local election), Hrach has powerful supporters in political and business circles in Moscow. This is hard to disregard in Crimea, where the pro-Russian lobby is traditionally strong. At the news conference on April 19, Hrach unabashedly admitted his pro-Russian orientation (New Channel TV, Studio 1+1, April 19; Ukrainska Pravda, April 20; Kievskie Vedomosti, April 22).