Jubilation in Crimea after secession vote

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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)

Pro-Russia demonstrators storm the prosecutor-general’s office during a rally in Donetsk, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Pro-Russia demonstrators in the eastern city of Donetsk called Sunday for a referendum similar to the one in Crimea as some of them stormed the prosecutor-general’s office. (AP Photo/Andrey Basevich)

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)

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SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — As Russian flags fluttered in the breeze and retirees grew weepy at the thought of reuniting with Russia, residents in Crimea voted Sunday on whether to secede from Ukraine — a ballot condemned by the United States and Europe as illegal.

Ukraine’s new government in Kiev called the referendum a “circus” directed at gunpoint by Moscow — referring to the thousands of Russian troops now in the strategic Black Sea peninsula after seizing it two weeks ago.

But after the polls closed late Sunday, crowds in the regional Crimean capital of Simferopol erupted with jubilant chants in the main square, setting off fireworks at the prospect of once again becoming part of Russia.

The Crimea referendum offered voters the choice of seeking annexation by Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy — and secession was expected to get overwhelming approval.

Opponents of secession appeared to largely stay away Sunday, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play and land grab by Russia. But the Crimean election commission reported turnout at 75 percent even before the polls closed, which would make the referendum binding.

Russia was expected to face strong sanctions Monday by the U.S. and Europe over 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.

Crimea’s pro-Russia prime minister, confident the vote went his way, said on Twitter the Crimean parliament will meet Monday to formally ask Moscow to be annexed. A group of Crimean lawmakers will fly to Moscow later in the day for talks.

In Moscow, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, suggested that joining Russia was a done deal.

“We understand that for 23 years after Ukraine’s formation as a sovereign state, Crimeans have been waiting for this day,” Naryshkin was quoted as saying by the state ITAR-Tass news agency.

Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky suggested the annexation could take “from three days to three months,” according to Interfax.

Some residents in Crimea said they feared 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 Simferopol.

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 first 15 minutes of voting Sunday.

Ukraine’s new prime minister insisted 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 Sunday. “Also taking part in the performance are 21,000 Russian troops, who with their guns are trying to prove the legality of the referendum.”

As soon as the polls closed, the White House again denounced the vote.

“The international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence,” it said in a statement. “Russia’s actions are dangerous and destabilizing.”

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 threat of sanctions, 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.

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

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