Crisis In Central EuropeMonday, March 17, 2014
Crimea votes for union with Russia
95.5 percent of prelimary ballots opt to leave Ukraine, as West condemns ‘illegal’ referendum
SIMFEROPOL — Just two weeks after Russian troops seized their peninsula, Crimeans voted yesterday to leave Ukraine and join Russia, overwhelmingly approving a referendum that sought to unite the strategically important Black Sea region with the country it was part of for some 250 years.
In a vote widely condemned by the West, with over half the ballots counted, 95.5 percent of voters had chosen the option of annexation by Moscow, according to the head of the referendum commission, Mikhail Malyshev. Turnout was high, reaching 83 percent.
Western leaders plan to move swiftly to punish Russia with economic sanctions. In Ukraine’s capital, Ukraine accused Moscow of pouring more and more troops into the penisula and warned separatist leaders “the ground will burn under their feet.” Kiev branded the referendum a “circus” directed at gunpoint by Moscow.
As the votes were counted, a jubilant crowd watched fireworks and gathered around a statue of Vladimir Lenin in the centre of Simferopol to celebrate. Many held Russian flags, and a handwritten banner declared: “We’re Russian and proud of it.”
“We want to go back home, and today we are going back home,” said Viktoria Chernyshova, a 38-year-old businesswoman. “We needed to save ourselves from those unprincipled clowns who have taken power in Kiev.”
Crimea’s 1.5 million voters had two options in the vote: union with Russia or giving their region, which is controlled by pro-Kremlin politicians, the broad right to determine its own path and choose relations with whom it wants — including Moscow. Final results are expected later today.
A local television channel broadcast the count at one small polling station. It took just a few minutes for officials to stack up the papers, virtually in a single pile. One gave the result as: “166 for, two against, one spoiled.” By “for” she clearly meant the first option on the paper, for union with Russia.
Opponents of secession appeared to stay away yesterday, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play and land grab by Russia.
Rise In Russian TroopsUkraine’s new prime minister insisted yesterday that neither Ukraine nor the West would recognize the vote.
“Under the stage direction of the Russian Federation, a circus performance is underway: the so-called referendum,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said. “Also taking part in the performance are 21,000 Russian troops, who with their guns are trying to prove the legality of the referendum.”
Moscow has the right to keep forces on the Black Sea peninsula, including at its naval base in the port of Sevastopol, under a treaty signed after Ukraine gained independence from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991. But Ukrainian Acting Defence Minister Ihor Tenyukh accused Moscow of going far beyond an agreed limit on servicemen — which he said was 12,500 for 2014.
“Unfortunately, in a very short period of time, this 12,500 has grown to 22,000. This is a crude violation of the bilateral agreements and is proof that Russia has unlawfully brought its troops onto the territory of Crimea,” he said.
This figure had risen from 18,400 on Friday. “Let me say once again that this is our land and we will not be leaving it,” he told the Interfax news agency.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, insisted the referendum was conducted in “full accordance with international law and the UN charter.”
Western powers denounced it as a sham. Underlining how Moscow’s military takeover of the peninsula two weeks ago has driven Russia and the West into a crisis with echoes of the Cold War, Putin and US President Barack Obama spoke by telephone and, according to the Kremlin, they agreed on a need to cooperate to stabilize Ukraine.
“This referendum is contrary to Ukraine’s Constitution,” a White House spokesman said. “The international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law.”
The Kremlin said Putin told Obama the referendum was legitimate and he expressed concern about the Ukrainian government’s failure to stamp out violence against Russian speakers in the country.
US, EU Sanctions
Russia is expected to face strong sanctions later today from the US and Europe for going forward with the vote, which could also encourage rising pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine’s east and lead to further divisions in this nation of 46 million. Residents in western Ukraine and the capital, Kiev, are strongly pro-West and Ukrainian nationalist.
Andrew Weiss, vice-president for Russian and East European studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested the confrontation could intensify.
Russia “is really turning its back on the outside world and is basically going to say to the West, ‘Now, go ahead. Show us how tough you are.’ And the West, I think, is struggling to come with an adequate response.”
The Crimean Parliament plans to meet today to formally ask Moscow to be annexed, and Crimean lawmakers were to fly to Moscow later in the day for talks, Crimea’s pro-Russia prime minister said on Twitter.
Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky said the annexation could take “from three days to three months,” according to the Interfax news agency.
Some residents in Crimea said yesterday they feared the new Ukrainian government that took over when former president Viktor Yanukovich fled to Russia last month would oppress them.
Russia raised the stakes on Saturday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armoured vehicles, took control of the Ukrainian village of Strilkove and a key natural gas distribution plant nearby — the first Russian military move into Ukraine beyond the Crimean peninsula. The Russian forces later returned the village but kept control of the gas plant. Yesterday, Ukrainian soldiers were digging trenches and erecting barricades between the village and the gas plant.
“We will not let them advance further into Ukrainian territory,” said Serhiy Kuz, commander of a Ukrainian paratrooper battalion.
Despite the threat of sanctions, Putin has vigorously resisted calls to pull back in Crimea.
At the United Nations on Saturday, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also spoke with Putin yesterday, wants more observers sent to tense areas, particularly in eastern Ukraine, her spokesman said.
In Donetsk, one of the main cities in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russia demonstrators called yesterday for a referendum similar to the one in Crimea.
In the streets of Sevastopol, speakers blared the city anthem. At a polling station inside a historic school, tears came to Vladimir Lozovoy, a 75-year-old retired Soviet naval officer, as he talked about his vote.
“I want to cry. I have finally returned to my motherland. It is an incredible feeling. This is the thing I have been waiting for for 23 years,” he said.
Herald with AP, Reuters