Crimea’s sham vote – and a very uneasy truce

Published by The Daily Mail (17th March, 2014)

Russia and Ukraine have agreed a truce until Friday as the contested Crimea region voted in a sham referendum that will almost certainly lead to its rapid annexation.

Yesterday’s ballot, held under the shadow of an invasion, has been called illegal by Kiev and Western allies, but Vladimir Putin said it complied with international law.

Russia’s president also said he was concerned by tensions in Ukraine’s south-east, with more pro-Russian demonstrations yesterday in Donetsk and Kharkiv.

It came two weeks after Russian-led forces seized the Crimea and imposed a puppet government, which set up a ballot effectively ruling out remaining Ukrainian. An exit poll claimed 93 per cent of Crimeans voted to join Russia, with 73 per cent turnout by 6pm with two hours of voting remaining.

The region’s parliament will meet early today to discuss its next move. Puppet ruler Sergei Aksyonov said Crimean would join Russia in ‘as tight a timeframe as possible.’

Many in the majority Russian region voted enthusiastically. ‘I was born in the Soviet Union and I’m coming home to Russia,’ said Luda Melnichenko, voting in a dental surgery in a Simferopol suburb. ‘Yesterday I turned 80 and this is the best birthday present I could have.’

Anna Fomicheba, 27, a mother of two wearing a skirt made from the Russian tricolour, said: ‘I am very happy – this is a historic day.’

At one polling station, the eyes of retired Soviet naval officer Vladimir Lozovoy welled up after voting. ‘I want to cry,’ said the 75-year-old. ‘I have finally returned to my motherland.’

Many voters said they were influenced by economic considerations, with higher pay in Russia. ‘People are voting freely,’ claimed Mr Aksyonov.

But with Russian soldiers at army bases, Cossack paramilitaries outside government building and armed militia on the streets, many in the minority Tartar and Ukrainian communities disagreed. 

‘I am not voting because the result has already been decided,’ said Galina Kaidalova, 62, a retired accountant.

As I talked to Kaidalova and her daughter, with soldiers on the roofs above us in Lenin Square, we were surrounded by a hostile crowd that angrily accused the two women of being ‘provocateurs’.

Plans for pro-Ukrainian protests were called off amid fears of violent retaliation from the newly-armed street militias. ‘I fear they may shoot,‘ one leading activist told me.

The mood was muted and turnout appeared low in towns with big Tartar populations such as Bakhchisaray and Belogorsk. This Muslim minority makes up one in eight Crimeans and was told by leaders to boycott the vote.

‘We still believe in Ukraine,’ said Bahtiar Martagirov, a Tartar businessman backing the boycott.

Ukraine’s prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has pledged to bring key figures in the crisis to justice. ‘The ground will burn beneath their feet,’ he told his cabinet.

Ukraine refuses to recognise the referendum – and believes Moscow is deliberately stirring up problems with agitators bussed in over the border. Yesterdays protests in Donetsk and Kharkiv were smaller and less violent than in recent days.

Russia is accused of having 22,000 troops now in Crimea – 9,500 more than permitted at its naval base in Sevastopol – with another 60,000 lined up on the border.

On Saturday afternoon its forces took control of a village and nearby gas distribution centre outside Crimea – its first military move beyond the peninsular of 1.3m people. 

Ukraine’s defence minister said the two nations had agreed a short truce until Friday. ‘No measures will be taken against our military facilities in Crimea during that time,’ said Igor Tenyukh.

European Union foreign ministers will decide today whether to impose sanctions. William Hague called for ‘a firm and united response.’

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