In a move that is certain to escalate tension on the besieged peninsula, the parliament of the autonomous republic voted on March 6 to separate from Ukraine and join Russia.
The referendum to seal this vote was moved to March 16, angering Kyiv because regional governments can’t vote to secede from the nation. U.S. President Barack Obama said on March 6 that the proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian Constitution and international law. Although Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said he annulled the decision, he also admitted that the popular vote will likely be held – and rigged.
“This will be a farce, this will be falsefication, this will be a crime against the state, which was organized by the military of the Russian Federation,” Turchynov said, adding that he started a procedure to dismiss the Crimean parliament.
The scheduling of the referendum, which was supported by 78 out of 100 Crimean lawmakers, will pose two questions: Do you support the reunification of Crimea with Russia, or the restoration of the Constitution of the Republic of Crimea in 1992, leaving it as part of Ukraine?
“The question with the most votes is considered a direct expression of the will of the population expressing the Crimea,” the parliamentary decree states.
However, the referendum’s outcome appears to be a foregone conclusion, as Crimean deputies on March 6 urged Russia to prepare legislation to enable the peninsula to enter the Russian Federation as a federal subject. Russia’s lower house in parliament, the Duma, responded quickly, saying it would push through a bill to consider admitting Crimea on March 10, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
Crimean Tatar chairman Refat Chubarov said that the parliament members who voted for annexation of Crimea were “lunatics” who had “lost their minds” and were “fulfilling someone else’s will” in a post on Facebook. Crimean Tatars strongly support Ukraine’s territorial integrity. They make up about 12 percent of the population, according to a 2008 Razumkov Center survey.
More than 50 percent of Crimea’s population is comprised of ethnic Russians with a disproportionate amount residing in Sevastopol where Russia leases a naval base. A late February poll by Kyiv-based Democratic Initiatives found that 42 percent of Crimean residents want Ukraine to unite with Russia.
Chubarov urged residents of the peninsula to boycott the referendum scheduled for March 16.
“The Mejlis (parliament) of the Crimean Tatars does not recognize this referendum. Accordingly, it calls on all residents of Crimea, regardless of their ethnicity, to completely boycott all stages of the preparation for, as well as the voting, on the day of the referendum,” he said.
“At a time when there are troops on the streets, when there is complete lawlessness, in the absence of legislation, the declaration of any referendum is an act aimed at further destabilizing the situation in Crimea,” Chubarov said.
At a press conference in Brussels, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk also said that Crimean parliament has no “legal grounds at all” to set a referendum. Any issue related to territorial integrity is decided via a national referendum.
In an interview with the Associated Press on March 5, Yatseniuk said that Crimea would remain a part of Ukraine.
“This is Ukrainian territory and Russia wants to grab control over Crimea. But I will underline again, we will do our best in order to regain control over Ukrainian territory,” he said. “The Russian military is to be back in the barracks.”
But the Crimean parliament clearly disagrees, and took an attempt to legitimize Russia’s occupation of the peninsula. Since last week, thousands of Russian soldiers have besieged Ukrainian military bases and other infrastructural facilities, and issued ultimatums: pledge allegiance to Crimea, or face a military storm.
Putin has repeatedly denied that the troops on the ground are Russian, noting that their uniforms have no identifying symbols and could be purchased anywhere in the post-Soviet space. But two soldiers caught by the Ukrainian military on March 6 carried Russian passports and military IDs.
Moreover, many soldiers identified themselves to Ukrainian troops as being Russian elite forces, Ukrainian soldiers said. Moreover, the army vehicles stationed all around Crimea carry Russian tag numbers and even painted flags.
“Yes, of course they are Russian,” Alexey Khramov, a press officer for the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, Sevostopol region, told the Kyiv Post in an interview during a tense standoff at Belbek airfield on March 4. “These men are our brothers. This might be the only reason they have not fired their weapons at us yet.”
Several Ukrainian military bases have been taken since last weekend, including an airfield in Belbek outside Sevastopol, where Russian soldiers fired bursts of live rounds into the air on March 4 as Ukrainian troops marched toward them unarmed, determined to carry out their daily tasks, which include maintaining several fighter jets.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian navy ship Slavutych repelled an attempted blitz overnight on March 4-5 by men donning similar uniforms to the Russian troops seen around the peninsula, according to soldiers aboard the ship.
Ukrainian authorities have said that there are 16,000 Russian troops in Crimea, up from 3,000 before the confrontation. They are armed with machine guns, sniper rifles and bazookas. Operating alongside them are several thousand pro-Russian militiamen in military fatigues, some of whom are also armed with automatic weapons.
The behavior they display is not that of professional military men. In one instance, they quarreled with a peaceful group of female demonstrators, tearing apart their handmade signs and shoving them into oncoming traffic. In another, they blocked a United Nations peace envoy from holding scheduled talks, forcing him to cut his Crimean visit short on March 5.
A pro-Russia Crimean self-defense member pushes a woman away from a military base on Karl Marx Street in Simferopol where she and other women had gathered in a peaceful demonstration to call for unity among Crimeans on March 5.
Together, the soldiers and militiamen had also blocked road access to the Crimean peninsula, and managed to briefly shut down flights in and out of Simferopol Airport.
Several Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars who oppose the actions of the Russian troops and militia now say they fear being out late at night, or even walking in city centers, which are now regularly patrolled by the armed groups.
“I don’t even go to Simferopol anymore,” said Eskander Japarov, a 40-year-old Crimean Tatar who lives in the village of Ana-Yurt. He moved to the hillside hamlet 21 years ago from after the fall of the Soviet Union, where his family was exiled after World War II.
“If they see me, as a Crimean Tatar man, they will attack me,” he said.
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.