Crimea Referendum Offers Taste of Democracy ‘Under Guns’

Crimeans heading to the ballot box this week will get a taste of a different kind of democracy.

The referendum will offer voters the choice of joining Russia or renegotiating the autonomous region’s status within Ukraine. Keeping the current arrangement isn’t an option.

About 1.5 million voters will head to the polls on March 16 to make their choice for the peninsula in the focus of the tensest standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War. As Vladimir Putin pours troops into the region, saying he needs to protect its ethnic Russian majority, the government in Kiev and its Western allies say the referendum is illegal.

“There’s no choice there, because there is no question in it about preserving the status quo or simply expanding the powers of the Crimean republic,” Oleksiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said by phone today. “It’s wrong to ponder about what questions the referendum asks. It’s not legal. The decision to hold it was made under guns and the referendum will be held under guns.”

Russia is wresting control of Crimea, home to its Black Sea Fleet. The U.S. estimates the Kremlin now has 20,000 troops confronting a smaller Ukrainian force there. The referendum was called by a new leadership in the regional parliament, installed after the building had been seized by armed Russia supporters.

The questions on the ballot, as released by the Crimean parliament on its website, will be: “Do you support reuniting Crimea with Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation?” and “Do you support restoring the Crimean Republic’s 1992 Constitution and status within Ukraine?” The second option refers to a law that gives the region the right to determine how much authority to delegate to Kiev.

Observers Blocked

While the Ukrainian government wants international observers to monitor the situation, gunmen have blocked three attempts by a mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to enter Crimea, including with warning shots being fired on March 8.

Russia should “strongly support” getting observers on the ground in Crimea, Daniel Baer, the U.S.’s ambassador to the OSCE, a 57-country organization that includes Russia and the U.S., said in website statement dated yesterday. Russia isn’t part of the mission.

Crimea’s First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliev said observers, not “provocateurs” were welcome, the Interfax news service reported today. The OSCE mission includes mostly representatives of the NATO countries and “we don’t need military advisers here,” Temirgaliev said, according to Interfax.

Tatar Boycott

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 Russians aren’t under threat.

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 region plans to print 2.2 million ballots for the vote, while the number of registered voters was 1.5 million as of Feb. 28, the Kiev-based weekly newspaper Zerkalo Nedeli reported, citing Mikhail Malyshev, the head of the electoral commission head.

If voters choose to join Russia, they will be able to pick between Russian and Ukrainian passports and will have two official languages, Russian and Crimean Tatar, Crimean Premier Sergey Aksenov said, the Ria Novosti news service reported today.

To some in Crimea, the outcome isn’t a question.

“There’s no comeback, and the U.S. or Europe can’t impede us,” Sergei Tsekov, the deputy speaker of Crimea’s parliament, said March 7 by phone from Moscow. “Crimea won’t be part of Ukraine anymore. There are no more options.”

(Click EXT2 for more on the Ukraine crisis)
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