You are here

Crimea votes on joining Russia amid soaring tensions

By AFP - Mar 16,2014 - Last updated at Mar 16,2014

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Crimeans voted Sunday in a referendum to join former political master Russia as tensions escalated in eastern Ukraine in the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.

Ukraine’s new leaders and the West have branded as “illegal” the vote in the strategic Black Sea peninsula that has been under the de facto control of Russian forces for weeks.

US Secretary of State John Kerry demanded that Moscow pull back its forces to their bases in Crimea in return for constitutional reforms in Ukraine to protect minority rights.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would respect the outcome of the referendum, but the European Union condemned the vote and said it would be deciding on sanctions against Russia on Monday.

In Crimea itself, Russian flags were being flown everywhere from city buses to convoys of bikers roaming the streets as thousands of people went to the polls.

“This is a historic moment,” Sergiy Aksyonov, the local pro-Moscow prime minister, told reporters after casting his ballot in the regional capital Simferopol.

Cossacks and pro-Moscow militias were patrolling outside polling stations and Russian troops guarded the unofficial border between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine.

In the flashpoint eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, pro-Russian groups in favour of holding a similar referendum stormed the local security and legal headquarters demanding the release of their self-appointed “governor,” an AFP reporter said.

Ukraine’s new government and most of the international community except Russia have said they will not recognise a result expected to be overwhelmingly in favour of Crimea’s secession.

Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a phone call that the crisis in Ukraine “can only be resolved politically”, according to a State Department official.

“As Ukrainians take the necessary political measures going forward, Russia must reciprocate by pulling forces back to base, and addressing the tensions and concerns about military engagement,” the official said.

Putin, meanwhile, told German Chancellor Angela Merkel he would “respect the choice of Crimea’s residents” and accused Ukrainian authorities of fanning tensions in mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov, who last month replaced ousted pro-Kremlin leader Viktor Yanukovych after three months of protests, also accused Russia of fanning tensions in eastern Ukraine as a way of justifying an invasion.

“The result has been pre-planned by the Kremlin as a formal justification to send in its troops and start a war that will destroy people’s lives and the economic prospects for Crimea,” he said.

The European Union said the referendum was “illegal and illegitimate” and again condemned Moscow’s “unprovoked violation” of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

There were signs however of a possible easing in Crimea as Ukraine said its forces on the peninsula had reached a temporary truce with Russia to lift the blockade around Ukrainian bases.

But there was no sign of the agreement being implemented at the Perevalnoye base outside Simferopol, where AFP reporters saw Russian forces still in place.

Tensions remained high in other parts of Ukraine’s southeast, where three activists have been killed in Donetsk and Kharkiv in recent days.

Around 1,000 pro-Moscow activists rallied in Donetsk to support Crimea’s referendum and 2,000 turned out in Kharkiv with a large Russian flag and a sign reading “Our Homeland is the USSR.”


‘Not going to vote’ 


Crimea is inhabited mostly by ethnic Russians and was seized by Russian forces after last month’s ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin leader, sparking a dangerous security crisis on Europe’s eastern border.

Some Crimeans said they would spoil their ballots in protest and there was a call on social media for people to cook vareniki — Ukrainian dumplings — instead of going out to vote.

Crimean authorities denied irregularities but accredited journalists including AFP were prevented from entering some polling stations in the port city of Sevastopol and in Simferopol, and several people were seen voting before polls opened.

Foreign observers were present although the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it would not monitor because it was not officially invited by Ukraine’s national government.

Crimea’s indigenous Muslim Tatar community, which was deported to Central Asia in Soviet times, largely boycotted the referendum.

“Of course we are not going to vote,” said Dilyara Seitvelieva, a community leader in Bakhchysaray, an historic Tatar town.

“The situation is very dangerous,” she told AFP.

Mostly ethnic Russians were seen casting their votes at a polling station in Bakhchysaray.

“We have waited years for this moment,” said 71-year-old Ivan Konstantinovich. “Everyone will vote for Russia.”

 ‘We are in Russia!’ 


Voters can choose to become part of Russia or retain more autonomy but stay in Ukraine — a vote for the status quo is not an option.

Preliminary results were expected soon after polls close at 8pm (1800 GMT).

The referendum committee said turnout was at 64 per cent two-thirds of the way through voting.

Rehearsals for planned celebrations have included the slogan “We are in Russia!” beamed on to the government building in Simferopol, leaving no doubt about the expected outcome.

In Sevastopol, home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since the 18th century, the mood was celebratory and patriotic Russian military songs blared.

Preparations to become part of Russia — a process that could take months — are to begin this week if the referendum result is pro-Moscow.

There has been no armed confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian forces but several incidents involving journalists and pro-unity activists condemned by Amnesty International as “extremely worrying”.

‘Crimean Spring’ 


While the West has been powerless to stop Crimea’s annexation, Russia faces a painful round of sanctions against top officials that Washington and EU nations are set to unveil on Monday and it could be ostracised or even ejected from the Group of Eight leading world powers.

Local authorities are calling the vote a “Crimean Spring” but many Crimeans are concerned about a possible legal vacuum and economic turmoil.

One immediate worry is about the availability of cash and there have been long queues outside banks with Crimeans rushing to withdraw their money.

Crimea would not automatically join Russia after the vote and Ukraine’s government has said it cannot survive since it depends on electricity, energy and water supplies from the mainland.

In Bakhchysaray, Anna Ivanovna, 70, said she had voted to join Moscow, but was apprehensive.

“Yes, we will be Russians. It’s good but at the same time, at my age, it’s hard to change countries,” she said.

108 users have voted.


Get top stories and blog posts emailed to you each day.