SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — In a referendum watched closely around the world, residents in Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula voted Sunday on whether to demand greater autonomy or split off and seek to join Russia. The vote has been condemned as illegal by the United States and European countries.
The referendum comes two weeks after Russian-led forces seized control of Crimea, a predominantly ethnic Russian region on the Black Sea that hosts a key Russian naval base. Its residents say they fear the new Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last month will oppress them.
Ukraine’s new prime minister insisted again Sunday that neither Ukraine nor the West will recognize the referendum, which they say is being 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.”
Russia raised the stakes Saturday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, took control of a Ukrainian village outside Crimea — the first military move beyond the peninsula of 2 million people. The Russian forces also took control of a nearby natural gas distribution station, claiming the need to prevent possible terrorist acts.
Serhiy Astakhov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Border Guard, told The Associated Press on Sunday that Ukrainian forces retook control of the village late Saturday after negotiations with the Russian forces, but the Russian still controlled the gas plant.
If the referendum passes, Russia faces the prospect of quick sanctions from Western nations. So far, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin has vigorously resisted calls to pull back in Crimea. At the United Nations, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal, and China, its ally, abstained in a sign of Moscow’s isolation on the issue.
In Sevastopol, Crimea’s key port and the site of the Russian naval base, more than 70 people surged into a polling station within the first 15 minutes of voting Sunday.
“Today is a holiday!” said 66-year-old Vera Sverkunova. Asked how she voted, she broke into a patriotic war song: “I want to go home to Russia. It’s been so long since I’ve seen my mama.”
“Today is an important day for all Crimea, Ukraine and Russia,” said voter Manita Meshchina.
Speakers blared the city anthem up and down the streets, giving Sevastopol a feeling of a block party. But the military threat was clear — a Russian naval warship still blocked the port’s outlet to the Black Sea, trapping Ukrainian boats. Under a disputed new lease, Russia pays Ukraine $98 million a year in rent for the naval base.
At a polling station inside a historic school building in Sevastopol, Vladimir Lozovoy, a 75-year-old retired Soviet naval officer, began tearing up as he talked about his vote.
“I want to cry. I have finally returned to my motherland. It is an incredible feeling. This is the thing I have been waiting for for 23 years,” he said.
Since Yanukovych fled to Russia, Crimea has come under the control of local militias as well as heavily armed troops under the apparent command from Moscow. Crimea’s pro-Russia authorities say if Ukrainian soldiers resolutely occupying their garrisons on the peninsula don’t surrender after Sunday’s vote, they will be considered “illegal.”
But Ukraine’s acting defense minister, Igor Tenyuk, remained defiant and Crimea’s large Tatar Muslim minority still fiercely opposes any annexation to Russia.
“This is our land and we’re not going anywhere from this land,” Tenyuk said Sunday in an interview published by the Interfax news agency.
The Crimea referendum “is a clown show, a circus,” Tatar activist Refat Chubarov said on Crimea’s Tatar television station Sunday. “This is a tragedy, an illegitimate government with armed forces from another country.”
Blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags were nowhere to seen around the streets of the regional capital of Simferopol but Red, white and blue Russian and Crimean flags fluttered in abundance.
Ethnic Ukrainians interviewed outside the Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral of Vladimir and Olga said they refused to take part in the referendum, calling it an illegal charade stage-managed by Moscow. Some said they were scared of the potential for ethnic cleansing in the coming weeks, like what happened in parts nearby Georgia, another former Soviet republic.
“We’re just not going to play these separatist games,” said Yevgen Sukhodolsky, a 41-year-old prosecutor from Saki, a town outside Simferopol. “Putin is the fascist. The Russian government is fascist.”
Vasyl Ovcharuk, a retired gas pipe layer who also worked on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, predicted dark days ahead for Crimea.
“This will end up in military action, in which peaceful people will suffer. And that means everybody. Shells and bullets are blind,” he said.