CRIMEANS voted overwhelmingly to break away from Ukraine and join Russia in a referendum yesterday that has alarmed the former Soviet republic and triggered the worst crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War.
According to results of an exit poll last night, 95.5 per cent of voters backed a union with Moscow – 60 years after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, an ethnic Ukrainian, gifted Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic on an apparent whim.
Thousands of people filled Lenin Square in the centre of Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, and waved Crimean and Russian flags in a festive celebration of what most locals wanted.
“We cannot be any worse off than we are now,” said Lyudmila Sergeyevna, 64, who was born in Simferopol and has lived on the peninsula all her life.
“I am Ukrainian through and through, but I voted for Russia … I just hope things are going to be better now.”
The majority of Crimea’s 1.5 million electorate support becoming part of Russia, citing expectations of economic growth and the prospect of joining a country capable of asserting itself on the world stage. But others saw the move as a geo-political land grab by the Kremlin, which is seeking to exploit Ukraine’s relative economic and military weakness as it moves towards the European mainstream and away from Russia.
Thousands of Russian troops have taken control of the Black Sea peninsula, and Crimea’s pro-Russian leaders ensured the vote was tilted in Moscow’s favour.
That, along with an ethnic Russian majority, resulted in a comfortable “Yes” vote to leave Ukraine, a move expected to lead to sanctions by the United States and European Union as early as today against those seen as responsible for the takeover.
When Crimean prime minister Sergei Aksyonov – whose election is not recognised by Ukrainian state authorities in Kiev – cast his ballot, a man tried to unfurl a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag next to him, but people in the crowd prevented the show of dissent.
Voters had two options to choose from – but both implied Russian control of the peninsula.
On Saturday night, Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksander Turchinov, called on people in Crimea to boycott the “pseudo-referendum”. Mr Turchinov said: “Its result has already been written in the Kremlin, which needs some grounds to officially put troops on our land and start a war which will destroy people’s lives and the economic prospects of Crimea.”
Most ethnic Tatars – Sunni Muslims of Turkic origin who make up 12 per cent of Crimea’s population – boycotted the referendum, despite promises by the authorities to give them financial aid and land rights.
Shevkaye Assanova, a Crimean Tatar in her 40s, said she would not recognise the outcome. She said: “This is my land. This is the land of my ancestors … I don’t recognise this at all. I curse all of them.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin has justified his stance on Crimea by saying he must protect people from “fascists” who ousted Moscow-backed Ukrainian prime minister Viktor Yanukovich in February following an uprising in which more than 100 people were killed.
The protests began when Mr Yanukovich turned his back on a trade agreement with the EU and opted for a credit and cheap oil deal worth billions of dollars with Russia.