With one exit poll showing that 93 percent of Crimeans voted to join Russia, and street celebrations under way, the peninsula's pro-Kremlin prime minister and a Russian nationalist politician pledged quick integration.
The bravado and declarations of speedy Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory came after a deeply flawed vote held under the intimidating presence of at least 21,000 Russian soldiers, who invaded in late February.
Crimean officials, including Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov, and parliament speaker Vladimir Konstantinov, showed up at the stage on the main square in Simferopol near the Vladimir Lenin monument. They stood listening to the Russian national anthem and then enjoyed a fireworks show amid shouts of jubilation among hundreds of people.
“We have an absolutely legitimate referendum. I have never seen more legitimate event,” Konstantinov told local Crimean 24 TV station.
Ukraine's central government and the West pledged to ignore the results, calling the referendum illegal and demanding that Russia remove its troops and respect Ukraine's territory and national sovereignty
Unless Russian President Vladimir Putin backs down, the stage has been set for a protacted conflict over the fate of Ukraine between the Kremlin and the West.
If respected international election observers had been allowed to watch the vote on whether Crimea should to join Russia or merely gain greater autonomy from Ukraine, they would have found plenty to criticize. Violations could be spotted everywhere.
After polls closed at 8 p.m., more signs of trouble surfaced, with Kyiv Post and even Russian journalists aggressively barred from watching the vote count in one polling station in central Simferopol. Police smashed a TV camera of a Russian crew. "We just wanted to see the vote count, but they called us provocateurs and pushed us away," said Ekaterina Vinokurova of znak.com, crying.
Journalists wait in the hallway of a polling station at Pushkina 19/11 in Simferopol after officials barred them from observing the ballots being counted
Yevheny Bontman, a journalist with Echo Moskvy, said he saw many people were supporting Russia and weated to "confirm the vote count, but they pushed me away," Bontman said. "We don't have things like this in Russia."
The lone observer at the polling station said Crimean election officials had every right to ban everyone from the vote count except for those people actually conducting it, a violation of democratic election principles.
Other reports suggested this was not an isolated incident.
Shortly after 8 p.m., exit polls showed 93 percent of voters opted for Crimea to become a part of Russia, with voter turnout exceeding 85 percent, according to Kryminform, the commission responsible for holding the referendum
The problems with this referendum were rampant and started early -- with an outcome sealed, perhaps, from the minute that thousands of Russian armed soldiers took control of the peninsula in late February.
Aksyonov pledges fast integration with Russia
Aksyonov, whose authority the central government in Kyiv does not recognize, sounded confident in the high turnout and the lopsided result to rejoin Russia after nearly 23 years as an autonomous republic of independent Ukraine.
Following the exit polls, he didn't waste any time announcing changes. Next week, Crimea will officially introduce the ruble as a second official currency along with Ukrainian hryvna, Aksyonov told Interfax. He said the dual currency will be in place for approximately six months.
The leader of A Just Russia Party, Sergei Mironov, told Channel One on March 16 the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, will quickly approve all laws on Crimean accession to Russia. “All will happen strictly and quickly. Our Crimean brothers should not doubt," Mironov said.
Crimean officials dismiss election violations
Throughout the day, journalists questioned electoral committee head Mikhail Malyshev about alleged referendum violations. These included Russian citizens being allowed to vote, ballots being printed on ordinary office paper, journalists being denied access to polling stations and the presence of armed or uniformed men outside stations.
In each case, Malyshev said that not a single official complaint had been filed.
The only violation he admitted was a problem with "dead souls," or the names of deceased people included on voting lists. In the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election which started the Orange Revolution, the use of "dead soul" votes was one of the key mass violations.
Malyshev said any "dead souls" included in lists were the result of problems with the Kyiv authorities, who he said had made it very difficult for Crimea to draw up proper voter lists in time for the referendum. But he insisted the names were simply mistakes and had not been used to register false votes.
Results would be reported directly to the central electoral committee, Malyshev said, and will not be posted at individual polling stations. The results of more than 50 percent of votes on the peninsula were announced less than three hours after polling stations closed.
A team of international observers, which included a representative of the Russian minority in Latvia, a Spanish deputy supporting Catalan independence, a Russian Federation deputy from the Communist party and several far-right European parliamentarians, said they saw nothing wrong and were glad to witness the "experiment in democracy," as one described it
“What I saw was a democratic choice, I didn’t see any problems,” said Aymeric Chauprade, an adviser for French National Front leader Marine le Pen.
Most of the observers spoke about their political views as much as what they saw at polling stations. They open criticized the United States and the European Union and defended the right to self-determination.
Heavy pressure on voters who were not given a 'no' option
In the two week run-up to the referendum and on Election Day, Crimean officials put tremendous pressure on voters to support the join-Russia option on the ballot. The other option on the ballot was greater autonomy within Ukraine, which an exit poll said received only 7 percent of the vote. Keeping the status quo was not an option offered to voters.
The heavyhandedness included strong agitation on the day of vote, including billboards, speeches calling for people to vote for Russia and blatant intimidation -- such as the presence of armed men on streets and paratroopers in schools.
Reputable international observers -- such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- boycotted the election, casting further doubts on the integrity of the process from voter registrations' lists, to balloting and finally to counting and tabulation.
Local television broadcasts were replaced by Russian state media reports. Pro-Russian messages were plastered on billboards across the peninsula and peaceful pro-Ukrainian demonstrators were attacked by vicious participants of rival rotests.
A woman fills out documents that will allow her to vote in the Crimean referendum in Simferopol on March 16. (Photo: Anastasia Vlasova)
Sunday dawned wet and gloomy in Simferopol, but voting at the school No. 9 polling station was off to a bright and cheerful start, with recorded music playing at the entrance and a woman outside selling freshly baked cakes. Within two hours of opening, 30 percent of registered voters had already cast their vote, according to Raisa Zamiatina, head of the election committee. And it appeared they all voted for union with Russia.
Lilya Minko, 40, a nurse, came with her husband and son. “We are all for Russia. We want to be safe," she told the Kyiv Post. "The soldiers around are defending us. I’m not against Ukraine, my mom is Ukrainian. I have relatives in Kyiv and Lviv. But I’m against the illegal authorities in Kyiv. Yanukovych at least guaranteed the Russian language.”
A man in his 50s wrote on his ballot paper, next to his tick for returning to Russia: "Please God, let us go back."
A team of 30 self-declared international observers, of whom most have a subjective interest in the Crimean vote, monitored the referendum.
Enrique Ravello, an election observer who identified himself as a Spanish parliament deputy, told journalists after visiting three polling stations today in Simferopol: “I have seen people voting in freedom so there is hope for democracy, for human rights, for self-determination, and victory for people in Crimea…Here there is more freedom than in Catalonia… Crimea is an example for us in Catalonia.”
A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Simferopol on March 16. (Photo: Anastasia Vlasova)
At a polling station inside a Simferopol music school, the scene was quiet, and by 2 p.m. nearly 70 percent of registered voters there had cast their ballots, officials said. All voters the Kyiv Post spoke with there said they had cast their ballots in favor of joining Russia.
"We are Russians, and in Russia our right to speak Russian will be secured," said Olga Krasavina, 35.
Pensioner Elena Onopriyenko, said that in Russia "there are no shootings, unlike at Kyiv's Maidan." Asked about the Russian troops who have seized the peninsula, she said she was confident they would leave after the referendum.
Footage filmed by The Associated Press shows Crimean Prime Minister Serhiy Aksyonov casting his ballot in today's referendum
Few people were seen at polling stations in the Kamenka district of Simferopol, where many Crimean Tatars live. Zhanna Nikitenko, head of election commision at one of two stations there, said some 55 percent of voters had taken part in elections and all was calm and peaceful.
She recalled that during previous elections several observers from different parties were on hand. This time she saw no observers at all.
"We have a kind of holiday today and give sweets to those who vote for first time," she said.
At a second polling station only 10 percent of registered voters were reported to have taken part in the referendum. The Kyiv Post saw just one Crimean Tatar couple there. They refused to give comments.
The "peaceful" atmosphere Nikitenko spoke of there included half a dozen paratroopers in uniform watching over voters. Asked if they were Russians, one replied sternly: "No." Another urged him not to speak.
Crimean election officials on Sunday openly expressed support for the autonomous republic to join Russia and brushed off statements made by the West, which has called the referendum "illegitimate."
Voters in Simferopol prepare to cast their ballots in the Crimean referendum on March 16
"The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) are our enemies, we don't need them here," said Gennady Lisov, head of the music school polling station. Just one local observer was seen at the polling station after noon. Some observers from Russia preceded him in the early morning.
A Russian journalist was reportedly allowed to vote today after she showed her temporary Simferopol living permit, which is good for just one year.
"I told them I am a citizen of Russia, but I have a living permit for Simferopol and asked if I can vote," the woman said. "The woman told me that sure I can vote, because I live here. She hand-wrote my name in a separate list. That list contained five more names besides mine. She gave me the ballot, I went into the booth and voted."
Asked by another journalist whether she considered this voter fraud, she said that according to all laws, "this is illegal."
"I am a foreign citizen. How can I decide the destiny of the Crimean Autonomous Republic of Ukraine?" she added.
A Russian journalist explains how she was able to cast a ballot in today's Crimean referendum
On Saturday Ukraine's Constitutional Court of Ukraine declared the referendum unconstitutional and Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, voted also on March 15 to dissolve Crimea's pro-Kremlin parliament. The measure won with 278 out of 450 possible votes.
Before the voting, Oleh Tiahnybok, on the floor of the Rada, said: "Today we all are patriots. We (lawmakers) are responsible for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. I feel sorry for the Crimean people that they couldn't find out truth about what's going on In Ukraine. Moscow is not interested in Crimea, they are interested in dividing Ukraine. They don't want to defend Russian citizens but rather try to abolish Ukrainian language as it is. And we need to prevent it."
Viktor Pynzenyk, a member of parliament with Vitali Klitschko's UDAR party said: "We need to unite now for our future. Rada needs not only to look for its enemies, but also to search for allies as we need to find the way out of the problematic situation we face now in Ukraine.
Hanna Herman, a member of parliament with the Party of Regions, which was run by disgraced ex-President Viktor Yanukovych said: "We can't blame the Party of Regions for all the problems we are facing now. But if we dismiss the Crimean Parliament today as some of you, lawmakers, suggest, then whom we will deal with? We need to understand people in Crimea are also patriots, so we shouldn't go there and dishonor them."
A woman holds up a ballot at a polling station in Crimea before casting her vote in today's referendum. (Photo: AFP)
Serhiy Soboliev, a member off parliament with the Batkivshchyna party, said the only choice is "whether Kyiv will deal with Crimean crisis peacefully or we're preparing to war." He said the Batkivshchyna party -- now the leading political party in Ukraine -- is unanimous in its decision to dissolve the Crimean Parliament. 22:58
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.