Tension Rises Before Ukraine Poll

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea -- The pro-Russian leader of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula has denounced Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, increasing tension in the area before run-off local and national elections this weekend.

Yury Meshkov, in a dramatic statement read on television Wednesday, condemned Kravchuk's decision this week to appoint a prefect in the region, dominated by ethnic Russians.

He said that Kravchuk was unfit to lead the country and expressed the hope that new leaders would emerge to redirect policy.

"I only regret that Ukraine is being directed by the most dangerous government in terms of ensuring peace and stability in Europe," Meshkov said after returning from a visit to Cyprus.

"I am sure there will be a change in outlook and the elections will see the emergence of new leaders who see as vital the creation of a new close union with Russia."

The prefect's appointment, he said, "is liable to destabilize the situation and have unpredictable consequences."

The Crimean president has urged voters in the region to boycott the second round of Ukraine's national election on Sunday.

In elections to the local parliament, members of his pro-Moscow Russia bloc have already won 11 seats and stand to win many more in the 98-seat assembly.

Meshkov campaigned in January in favor of reassigning Crimea to Russian jurisdiction.

After his election victory, he played down any suggestion of prising Crimea from Ukraine but in recent weeks has taken increasingly militant decisions.

More than 70 percent of local residents voted in favor of closer ties with Russia in an unofficial referendum held in conjunction with the first round of elections last month.

Kravchuk responded by quashing several measures, including an order for Crimean army recruits to serve locally and Meshkov's dismissal of a regional television executive.

He appointed Valery Gorbatov, a collective farm boss, as prefect earlier this week.

In Kiev, Kravchuk acknowledged that tension was rising in Crimea but said Meshkov's actions amounted to "playschool."

"I am in favor of the maximum economic independence for Crimea," he told reporters.

But he added that "the tension revolves not around economic matters but rather around a referendum" and "dismissing a television executive."

About 70 percent of Crimea's 2.7 million residents are ethnic Russians.

The region was taken over by Russia in the 18th century and run by Moscow through the Soviet era until 1954, when, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, it was given to Ukraine as a "gift."