High turnout for secession vote in Crimea

Comment: Off

A Ukrainian policeman looks at ballot boxes after casting his vote in Perevalne, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Residents of Ukraine’s Crimea region are voting in a contentious referendum on whether to split off and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

A Ukrainian policeman looks at ballot boxes after casting his vote in Perevalne, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Residents of Ukraine’s Crimea region are voting in a contentious referendum on whether to split off and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

An Ukrainian policeman exits a voting booth after casting his vote in Perevalne, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Residents of Ukraine’s Crimea region are voting in a contentious referendum on whether to split off and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

A man and child exit a voting booth after casting a vote in the Crimean referendum in Simferopol, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Residents of Ukraine’s Crimea region are voting in a contentious referendum on whether to split off and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Simferopol, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Residents of Ukraine’s Crimea region are voting in a contentious referendum on whether to split off and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

A man holds a ballot after casting a vote in favor of separation from Ukraine in the Crimean referendum in Simferopol, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Residents of Ukraine’s Crimea region are voting in a contentious referendum on whether to split off and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Buy AP Photo Reprints

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — As Russian flags fluttered in the breeze and retirees grew weepy at the thought of reuniting with Russia, residents of Ukraine’s Crimea region held a secession vote Sunday. The United States and Europe condemned the referendum as illegal, while Ukraine’s new government called it a “circus” directed at gunpoint by Moscow.

The Crimea referendum offered voters on the strategic Black Sea Peninsula the choice of seeking annexation by Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy.

Opponents of secession appeared to largely stay away Sunday, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play/land grab by Russia. But turnout was reported to be well above the 50 percent that would make the referendum binding — and secession was expected to be approved overwhelmingly.

“Today is an important day for all of Crimea, Ukraine and Russia,” voter Manita Meshchina said in Sevastopol, the Crimean port where Russia now leases a major naval base from Ukraine for $98 million a year.

More than 70 people surged into a polling station in the city within the first 15 minutes of voting Sunday.

“Today is a holiday!” said 66-year-old Vera Sverkunova, breaking into a patriotic war song: “I want to go home to Russia. It’s been so long since I’ve seen my mama.”

A vote backing secession would not only leave Russia facing strong sanctions by the West but could encourage the pro-Russian sentiment that is rising in Ukraine’s east and lead to further divisions in this nation of 46 million. Western Ukraine and the capital of Kiev are strongly pro-West and Ukrainian nationalist.

The referendum comes two weeks after Russian-led forces seized control of Crimea. Locals say they fear the new Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last month will oppress them.

“It’s like they’re crazy Texans in western Ukraine. Imagine if the Texans suddenly took over power (in Washington) and told everyone they should speak Texan,” said Ilya Khlebanov, a voter in the Crimean capital of Simferopol.

Ukraine’s new prime minister insisted again Sunday that neither Ukraine nor the West will recognize the referendum, which he said was conducted at gunpoint.

“Now, on the territory of the autonomous republic of Crimea under the stage direction of the Russian Federation, a circus performance is underway: the so-called referendum,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a government meeting. “Also taking part in the performance are 21,000 Russian troops, who with their guns are trying to prove the legality of the referendum.”

Russia raised the stakes Saturday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armored 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 of 2 million people. The Russian forces later returned the village but kept control of the gas plant.

On Sunday, 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 sanctions threat, Russian President Vladimir 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. China, its ally, abstained and 13 of the 15 other nations on the council voted in favor — a signal of Moscow’s isolation.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Putin by phone Sunday, proposing that an international observer mission in Ukraine be expanded quickly as tensions rise in the east. Her spokesman said she also condemned the Russian seizure of the gas plant.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke and agreed to support constitutional reforms in Ukraine that could ease the tensions, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

Ukraine’s Regional Policy Minister Volodymyr Groisman told The Associated Press that the new government was already working on giving towns and regions more autonomy but said there were no plans to turn Ukraine into a federation.

In Donetsk, one of the main cities in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russia demonstrators called Sunday for a referendum similar to the one in Crimea and some of them stormed the prosecutor-general’s office.

In Sevastopol, speakers blared the city anthem up and down the streets, giving off a block-party feeling. But the military threat was not far

Comments

comments

About the Author