Crimeans vote to join Russian Federation, exit polls show
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine – “I voted for Russia. It is close to our spirit.”
Alexi Koval, 29, an electrical engineer in the capital of Ukraine's secession-minded Crimea region, spoke for most here during a referendum on Sunday on splitting away to join the Russian Federation.
“The Ukraine that existed before doesn't exist anymore, so it is no use going backwards,” he said, standing outside a polling station in the capital's blue-collar Old Town section.
Media reports citing exit polls said the referendum passed with 95 percent approval. A crowd began celebrating in the capital's Lenin Square soon after dark.
In Washington, the White House dismissed the vote as being “administered under the threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention.” European Union officials issued a similar statement.
In Kiev, Ukraine's interim government said it will not recognize the “illegitimate” vote.
All of that may matter little, as Russian troops who moved into Crimea more than two weeks ago appear in control, and most Crimeans appear eager to return to Russia after six decades apart.
Moscow ceded Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, when all were part of the Soviet Union.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted he is protecting Crimeans from “fascists” in Kiev who ousted the pro-Russia government of Victor Yanukovych after public protests in which more than 100 people were killed.
Soldiers in green uniforms without insignia surround Ukrainian military bases; most people here assume they are Russians, despite Moscow's repeated denials.
The Kyiv Post quoted Crimean Vice Premier Rustam Temirgaliev as stating, “Yes, we have Russian troops in Crimea, but they are absolutely legal. We also have 8,000 Crimean self-defense forces.”
Outside the Old Town polling station, where a woman briskly sold fresh fish to voters, blacksmith Kharkob Grigorian said he voted to join Russia because it is a “superpower and it will be better for us.”
Irina Fedosta, 30, did so as well. “I was born in Crimea, and born in the time of the Soviet Union. Russia is closest to my heart and my blood,” she said.
In Lenin Square, festooned with Crimean flags, two men and a small child tied Russian flags around their shoulders; others held up posters citing a United Nations charter provision on self-determination.
“I voted to join Russia,” said shopkeeper Alena Artyomova, 33. “I am an educated person and understand the transition will not be easy, but living in this fascist Ukraine is impossible.”
Nearby, World War II-era Soviet songs blared from speakers. Four women in red velvet dresses and golden hats sang Russian folk songs as people sang and clapped, some waving small Russian flags.
“Crimea, this is the spring we have been awaiting for so long,” one singer told the growing crowd.
A passing motorist honked his car horn and waved a large Russian flag.
Dissenting voices could be heard, however.
Lena Andrievscay, 25, chose the second ballot option, to keep Crimea with Ukraine while claiming greater autonomy to determine its alliances.
“I don't believe it's good to make changes,” said the cultural center worker. “I am also afraid if Crimea joins Russia, my job won't be required anymore.”
Tamara Ushachova, 30, a grocer, said she boycotted the vote. Pointing to a light rain, she said: “I think nature is crying for Crimea and Ukraine.”
She said the vote's outcome was predictable: “This is only a formality. I believe there will be lots of problems for everyone. Businesses will suffer because the laws will change. Ninety-nine percent of our products come from Ukraine.”
“My heart is breaking,” added Vladimir Pikush, 42, standing beside her.
“Ukraine is this free country where you can speak up openly on the TV, radio and online,” Ushachova said. Now “it will be like the Soviet Union times, when people whisper their opinions only at the kitchen table.”
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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