SIMFEROPOL – Crimean people went to polls on Sunday, March 16, for a referendum to decide whether to join Russia or stay with Ukraine, a vote that has alarmed a Cold War-style security crisis on Europe's eastern frontier.
“This is a historic moment, everyone will live happily,” Sergiy Aksyonov, the local pro-Moscow prime minister, told reporters after casting his ballot in the regional capital Simferopol, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported.
“This is a new era,” he said, after a man waving a Ukrainian flag was pushed away by security guards.
Who Are Muslim Crimean Tatars? Ukrainian Muslims: Problems Resolved?
“We will celebrate this evening,” Aksyonov said.
Early on Sunday, some 1.5 million people were called to vote on the Black Sea peninsula, which is mostly inhabited by ethnic Russians and has been seized by Russian forces over the past month.
Voters can choose to become part of Russia or retain more autonomy but stay in Ukraine -- a vote for the status quo is not an option.
Ukraine's interim President Oleksandr Turchynov called on Crimeans to boycott the ballot, accusing Russia of engineering it as part of an invasion plan.
“The result has been prep-lanned by the Kremlin as a formal justification to send in its troops and start a war that will destroy people's lives and the economic prospects for Crimea,” he said.
In the capital Simferopol, where the naval base of Sevastopol hosts Russia's Black Sea fleet, voters seemed more likely to choose Russia.
“Everything will be easier. I'm only for Russia,” said Russian-born Raisa, a 77-year-old woman with a walking stick who was among the first to vote in Simferopol.
The case in Bakhchysaray, the centre of Crimea's native Muslim Tatar community, was different.
As Crimean Tatar Muslims decided to boycott the referendum, only ethnic Russians were seen coming to vote.
“We have waited years for this moment,” said 71-year-old Ivan Konstantinovich, who raised his hands in victory after voting in the town.
“Everyone will vote for Russia,” he said.
Preliminary results were expected soon after polls close at 8:00pm (1800 GMT) and Russian flags were already being handed out in the streets in Sevastopol.
As the vote goes on, Ukrainian military bases in the region are surrounded by militias but there has been no armed Russia-Ukraine armed confrontation so far.
Voters can choose to become part of Russia or retain more autonomy but stay in Ukraine; a vote for the status quo is not an option.
Ukraine is also on full combat alert and on the eve of the vote it accused Russian forces of seizing a village just outside Crimea, saying: “Ukraine reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia”.
Russian troops and pro-Moscow militias took control of the strategic peninsula soon after the Kremlin-backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev last month in the wake of three months of deadly protests against his rule.
Russian lawmakers have also given the go-ahead for President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine when he wants, citing the need to defend ethnic Russians against ultra-nationalist radicals.
Pro-Russia authorities and Moscow say the referendum is an example of self-determination like Kosovo's decision to leave Serbia.
Yet, Washington says the vote cannot be democratic because it is taking place “under the barrel of a gun”.
As a yes-vote would guarantee Russia’s control of Crimea, Russia faces a painful round of sanctions against top officials that Washington and EU nations are set to unveil on Monday.
Sanctions could be ostracized or even ejected from the Group of Eight (G8) leading world powers.
Local authorities are calling this a “Crimean Spring” but many Crimeans are simply confused and concerned about a possible legal vacuum and economic turmoil in their region.
“Whether we stay with Ukraine or go with Russia, it's understandable that people are concerned,” said Aleksiy Yefremov, head of the student association “New People of Crimea”.
“We do not have enough information. Do we listen to officials in Kiev or to the local authorities?”
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