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.”