Ukraine’s government said it won’t accept the result of Crimea’s March 16 separatist referendum, whatever it is, saying the vote is unconstitutional and is neither free nor fair.
“There is no other way how to protest but to say to the international community that the results will not be valid,” Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Minister Andriy Deshchytsya told reporters in Kiev yesterday. “We insist that international observers be there.”
Pro-Kremlin forces are stepping up their presence in the Russian-majority Crimea region of about 2 million people, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The vote will offer the choices of joining Russia or staying in Ukraine and later deciding what powers to delegate to Kiev, according to a ballot released on the website of Crimea’s parliament yesterday. There’s no option to keep the current setup.
Ukraine is struggling to keep hold of the Black Sea peninsula, part of Russia until 1954, after pro-Russian forces took control of it in the wake of Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster as president. Ukraine’s government and the West say the referendum will be illegal as the country’s territory can be altered only in a nationwide referendum.
Russian President Vladimir Putin argues he needs to protect Russian-speaking citizens of Crimea. Ethnic Russians make up 59 percent of the region’s population, 24 percent are Ukrainian and 12 percent are ethnic Tatars, according to the 2001 census. The Kiev-based Ukrainian government says the country’s Russian population isn’t under threat.
Gunmen fired warning shots, blocking international observers who tried to enter Crimea for a third day, and a Ukrainian border patrol plane came under fire that didn’t cause injuries. TV5 reported that a military agency in the regional capital Simferopol was captured, and 70 unidentified trucks entered the city.
Pro-Russian forces broke into radio unit of a Ukrainian border check point in the Crimean city of Sevastopol yesterday, according to a statement on the state border guard service’s website. Attackers in military and civilian clothes broke into building, dismantled radio equipment and damaged connection cables, it said.
Western officials say they’re concerned that the situation in the peninsula, where the U.S. estimates there now are 20,000 Russian troops confronting a smaller Ukrainian military force, threatens to explode at any moment.
“Russia and Ukraine, right now, are one nervous 20-year-old soldier’s mistake away from something very, very bad happening that could spin out of control,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. There are about 12,000 Ukrainian troops in Crimea, he said.
The Tatar community’s leaders called for a boycott of the vote, according to Leyla Muslimova, a spokesman for Refat Chubarov, who heads the minority’s executive body. The referendum was called by a new leadership in the local parliament, installed after the building had been seized by pro-Russia supporters.
“You can’t have free and democratic referendum under guns,” Volodymyr Fesenko, the head of Penta Political Analysis Center in Kiev, said in a phone interview yesterday. “It’s manipulation. The results are well known ahead.”
The region is planning on printing 2.2 million ballots for the vote, compared with 1,534,815 voters registered in the region as of Feb. 28, weekly newspaper Zerkalo Nedeli reported on March 7, citing electoral commission head Mikhail Malyshev.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the situation by phone yesterday, agreeing that “intensive contacts” were necessary to resolve the crisis, according to a statement by the Foreign Ministry in Moscow.
Kerry also “made clear that continued military escalation and provocation in Crimea or elsewhere in Ukraine, along with steps to annex Crimea to Russia would close any available space for diplomacy, and he urged utmost restraint,” according to a statement from the U.S. State Department.
Crimean lawmakers on March 6 voted to join Russia if voters agree in the referendum and asked Putin to start drafting procedures for making the region part of the Russian Federation. Lawmakers in Moscow said they’d accept the results of the vote.
Some people in Crimea were eager to join Russia once lawmakers in Moscow approve the necessary legislation, according to the separatist Ukrainian region’s deputy parliamentary speaker.
“There’s no comeback, and the U.S. or Europe can’t impede us,” Sergei Tsekov said March 7 by phone from Moscow, where he met Russian officials to discuss the region’s future. “Crimea won’t be part of Ukraine anymore. There are no more options.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at email@example.com Michael Winfrey, Andrea Dudik