Crimeans overwhelmingly vote to leave Ukraine, join Russia
Pro-Russian people celebrate in Lenin Square, in Simferopol, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Polls have closed in Crimea's contentious referendum on seceding from Ukraine and seeking annexation by Russia. The vote, unrecognized both by the Ukrainian government and the West, was held Sunday as Russian flags fluttered in the breeze and retirees grew weepy at the thought of reuniting with Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Crimeans voted overwhelmingly yesterday to leave Ukraine and join Russia, election officials in the breakaway peninsula said, with the extraordinarily high figures capping a one-sided campaign of intimidation and heavy-handed tactics that blocked most voters from hearing a vision for any alternative other than unification with Moscow.
Shortly before midnight, with tens of thousands of people jamming Lenin Square and the streets of Simferopol, Crimean political leaders declared that 93 percent of voters had chosen to be reunited with Russia. Fireworks exploded overhead while a male chorus sang the Russian national anthem from a giant stage, and people screamed and hugged each other.
In Sevastopol, officials said the turnout was 89.5 percent, and preliminary results are that 93 percent voting to join Russia.
Sevastopol’s local results were announced on a concert stage in the biggest square, where officials walked onstage to the city’s anthem, Legendary Sevastopol. The crowd erupted in cheers when they heard the results
“We did it!” said an exhuberant Mayor Aleksey Chaliy.
Dmitri Belik, head of the city council, told the cheering crowd, “Sevastolpol, we are in Russia! Thank you, citizens of Sevastopol, we did it with your help, and nobody is going to kick us out.”
The move toward unification with Russian came as Western powers including the White House rejected the referendum even as Russian President Vladimir Putin described it as “fully consistent with international law and the UN Charter.”
The West is eying rapid sanctions following the vote, and a flurry of diplomatic calls took between Moscow, Washington and European capitals even as tensions rose elsewhere in Ukraine.
President Obama spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday, a senior administration official confirmed.
Earlier yesterday, the White House issued a statement rejecting the referendum as illegal and reiterated that it would not recognize any Russian actions taken on the basis of the vote. Noting Russia military escalation inside Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, the statement called such behavior “dangerous and destabilizing.”
“Military intervention and violation of international law will bring increasing costs for Russia – not only due to measures imposed by the United States and our allies but also as a direct result of Russia’s own destabilizing actions,” the statement said.
A top White House aide yesterday called on Putin to back down in Crimea or face economic sanctions from the West.
“President Putin has a choice about what he’s going to do here. Is he going to continue to further isolate himself, further hurt his economy, further diminish Russian influence in the world, or is he going to do the right thing?” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
After polls closed, British Foreign Secretary William Hague released a statement condemning the referendum, calling it “a mockery of proper democratic practice.”
But Russia has been adamant that the vote should go ahead.
Kerry, Lavrov speak
In a phone call between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Lavrov insisted that the referendum was legitimate and that “the results should be the starting point in determining the future of the peninsula,” according to a statement issued yesterday by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The statement also called on Ukrainian authorities to “curb the rampant violence by ultra-nationalist and radical groups terrorizing the dissident, Russian-speaking population, our compatriots.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry later said that Kerry and Lavrov had agreed to continue working toward a solution to the crisis in Ukraine through “an earliest possible launch of constitutional reform.” The statement did not elaborate.
In the State Department’s version of the call, a senior department official said that Kerry had reaffirmed that the United States considers the referendum illegal and will not recognize the outcome. Kerry, the official said, “raised strong concerns” about Russian military activity near the Crimean border and “continuing provocations in eastern cities in Ukraine.”
But the Russian and U.S. statements appeared to provide a glimmer of optimism that the situation might be resolved without Russian annexation, as both Kerry and Lavrov indicated a willingness to explore options for increased Crimean autonomy within Ukraine.
Kerry urged Russia to support efforts “to address power sharing and decentralization” through a process “that is broadly inclusive and protects the rights of minorities,” the official said. “It is positive to see Russia focusing on political processes.”
But Russia would have to “reciprocate,” the official said, by immediately pulling its forces back inside their bases in Crimea and “addressing the tensions and concerns about military engagement,” including ending its military exercises along Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders and “provocative actions” in Ukrainian cities.
Russia has suggested that it may have to intervene in eastern Ukraine to halt violence between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian demonstrators, which it blames on right-wing Ukrainians. Ukrainian officials have accused Moscow of provoking conflict in order to justify an intervention.
The Crimean vote occurred a day after Russian forces seized a natural gas facility just outside Crimean territory. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry called the move “a military invasion by Russia.”
As voting was about to commence, Russia’s military presence on the peninsula increased dramatically. A Ukrainian Defense Ministry official said about 50 military trucks carrying diesel generators were observed late Saturday on the road to Sevastopol. About 100 armored vehicles and trucks were seen heading toward a military airport near Dzhankoy in north Crimea, said Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman.
Acting Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh said yesterday that Russia had sharply elevated its troop presence in Crimea in recent days, bringing the total to 22,000. Tenyukh told Interfax news agency that under basing agreements, Russia is limited to 12,500 troops in Crimea.
“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,” Tenyukh said.
‘Crimea should be Russian’
Among the first to vote at School 3 in an elegant neighborhood in Sevastopol were Alla and Adolf Malerov, two pensioners who have been married for 52 years. Both said they voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
“We are so tired of all the reforms,” said Adolf Malerov, 76, a retired miner who said he was alarmed at the violence of the protests in Kiev and the presence of ultra nationalists in the Ukrainian government who he considers “fascists.”
“We want stability and prosperity,” he said.
As yesterday morning wore on and a driving rain drenched Sevastopol, a steady stream of voters made their way to almost 200 polling places in the city and in neighboring villages. At School 3, a television in the hallway showed video of Sevastopol monuments to the Crimean War, interspersed with jerking, black and white photos of soldiers doing battle for the Soviet Army in World War II. A poll worker turned up the volume so the hallways filled with stirring, almost martial music.
Tatyana Borodina, 44, said she considered this the most special vote she has ever cast. She said she felt in a festive mood.
“If I want to live in another city or another country, I can move,” she said after voting to join Russia. “But Crimea should be Russian.”
Down the block from School 3, an olive green military truck with Russian plates was parked outside a building that has become an office for self-defense units that have formed. But around the school and near the polling booths themselves, there was no visible security.
In half a dozen towns surrounding Simferopol, local poll officials said voters were showing up with exceptionally strong feelings about the referendum.
“People really want to express their feelings about what has been happening in Ukraine. This is coming from the heart,” said Ivan Karpovich, the polling station chairman in the town of Kashtanovoya, where he said 60 percent of registered voters had cast ballots by noon. By the same hour in the previous election in 2010, he said, only 21 percent of people had voted.
Outside the converted rural clubhouse where Karpovich was managing a steady stream of voters, a woman emerged beaming with happiness. “I want to give the biggest possible thanks to Vladimir Putin. He gave us the chance to choose our future that we always longed for,” said Nadezhda Kozak, 38, a postal worker. “This will be the best thing for all Crimea, and we will have a great holiday.”
Many voters in other towns, almost all members of Crimea’s 60 percent ethnic Russian populace, expressed similar strong emotions. A retired naval officer said he wanted to kiss the boots of Russian soldiers who have entered Ukraine in recent weeks. A retired teacher said the vote would liberate Crimea from the new leaders in Kiev, calling them “the same fascists our grandfathers died fighting.”
The great majority of Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority, seemed to have stayed away. In several polling places, officials said they had not registered a single Tatar by early afternoon. Some Tatars sat glumly in their living rooms, watching the TV news, but others took part in an organized “vareneky protest,” making Tatar-style ravioli stuffed with cheese and sharing it with their neighbors.
“This is totally illegitimate, and I can’t bear to think about how things will be afterwards,” said Tatiana Zhritov, 40, a car mechanic’s wife who made vareneky for her family yesterday. “I am Russian and my husband is Tatar. We never had a single problem with anyone. Life is not perfect here in Ukraine, but it has been peaceful. Now Russia is trying to divide us, and it is a terrible crime that will affect us for years to come.”
In the Crimean town of Bakhchysaray, a political and cultural center for minority Tatars, several polling places were crammed with enthusiastic voters first thing yesterday morning. However, most appeared to be ethnic Russians, while several Tatars in the street said they would not vote.
“We’re getting a lot more voters than usual, for so early in the day. Many say they have been waiting for this moment a long time,” said Galina Krivsova, a volunteer official at one polling station and a Russian language teacher. “A lot of older people remember the Soviet times, when it was easier to get apartments and other things. They want to go back.”
Krivsova, like other poll workers in Bakhchysaray, was cordial to journalists, and the voting appeared to be orderly and efficient. The room was crowded and noisy with people asking questions, but officials with ledgers checked every ID card against lists and then guided voters to booths surrounded by cloth. A man guarded a large Plexiglas box where people dropped their ballots. All those easily visible had check marks in the first of two boxes, which signified support of annexation to Russia.
“I was born here when this was part of Russia, so I feel comfortable with Russia, and I voted for Russia,” said a retired soldier and school worker, 65, who gave his name as Yuri. He predicted that many of his Tatar neighbors would vote for annexation despite the boycott because they depend on tourism for a living.
“The best and richest tourists who come here are from Russia,” he said.
A few blocks away, a Tatar cafe manager snorted when asked if he planned to vote.
“No way,” Leonor Osmanov, 50, said with a dismissive wave. “Russia has spread a lot of lies, but we are all able to organize our lives perfectly well in Ukraine. Our parents survived deportation, and we will survive this, too. We will defend Ukraine, not with weapons but with our voices.”
Polls open to singing
Security at polling places varied widely. At some schools there was virtually none. At others, soldiers wearing full-face balaclava masks and armed with Kalashnikov rifles guarded entrances.
Few voters bothered to fold their ballots before dropping them in see-through boxes, and every visible ballot showed a check mark for ballot question one – to join Russia. The other option is greater autonomy for Crimea, while technically remaining within Ukraine.
When polls opened at School 60 in Sevastopol, a group of about 20 voters carrying Sevastopol flags and singing the city anthem trooped in to applause from other voters. Mothers came to vote with their children, who carried Russian flags or had Russian ribbons tied to their jacket sleeves.
Turnout at School 60, where 3,485 people are registered, has ranged from crowded to jampacked, said elections official Tatyana Karpenko.
“It’s been a very long wait – 23 years,” said Nikolai Papanyan, 31, after voting to join Russia. “Before, we elected politicians who promised to move closer to Russia. Now we’re doing it ourselves.”