Crimea parliament calls time on 60 yrs of Ukraine, prepares for Russia

By bne IntelliNews March 17, 2014

Graham Stack in Simferopol -

Crimea's parliament on March 17 declared itself independent of Ukraine and is preparing to join the Russian Federation, following the referendum that Crimean authorities claim delivered a landslide majority for secession. Clocks are to switch to Moscow time on March 30.

The March 16 referendum that created the Republic of Crimea was ominously reminiscent of Soviet polls, with a declared 97% of voters in favour of Crimea becoming a part of Russia, with 100% of ballot papers, totalling around 1.2m, counted. Some 2.5% voted for the option of extensive autonomy formally within Ukraine. The referendum did not provide any option for the status quo. Turnout was high at 83%, according to the election commission.

International experts poured scorn on both the legal basis for the referendum, as well as the likelihood of large-scale fraud having taken place to get the needed result due to lack of any transparency regarding voter lists and counting. "The so-called referendum is completely illegitimate, both from the constitutional point of view and also because of the way it was conducted," says András Racz of Budapest's Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy.

Nevertheless, even any rigging in the result likely reflected the general trend of voting behaviour, given that the dissenting Crimean Tatar population were called on by their leaders to boycott the referendum, and other groups opposed such as ethnic Ukrainians probably followed suit. The two groups together may constitute only as much as a third of the population of Crimea.

In Simferopol and Sevastopol there were substantial street celebrations as the preliminary results were announced in the late evening of March 16. Russian flags were hoisted beside the Crimean flag on government buildings, fireworks blazed into the clear sky and car cavalcades honked horns. "I was happy - I voted in favour of Russia, but my wife, who is Ukrainian, cried," denizen of resort town Yalta Sergei Marchenko, 54, told bne.

Ukraine was set to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Crimea's transfer to Ukraine by Soviet boss Nikita Khrushchev later this year. In Kyiv, thousands gathered on the central square known as Maidan to protest against the referendum and support Ukraine's right to Crimea.

Russifying Crimea

Crimea's authorities lost no time on March 17 in getting to work on preparing the peninsula's formal handover to Russia. Crimea's parliament passed a raft of measures pushing ahead the transformation of Crimea from being Ukrainian territory to Russia. The most immediate of this will be on March 30, when Crimea will switch to Moscow time - two hours ahead of Ukraine time, according to a parliamentary decision.

In April the move to the ruble will commence, said Crimea's first deputy prime minister, Rustam Temirgaliyev, with Ukraine's hyrvnia currency remaining legal tender in Crimea until end of 2015. Crimeans will be able to get Russian passports, driving licences and other documents according to streamlined procedures following Crimea's planned accession to the Russian Federation, Temirgaliyev added.

Crimea's parliament also nationalised all commercial seaports in Crimea, and all other infrastructure objects. At the same time, the prosecutor's office and customs authorities became the latest state institutions to become fully "Crimeanised".

Crimea's authorities also pushed ahead with re-organising the peninsula's economy, subordinating all Ukrainian state property, including gas company Chornomornaftogaz, which is also Ukraine's main offshore operator. The Russian flag is now flying alongside the Crimean flag at Chornomornaftogaz headquarters in Simferopol, with rumours that the unit is set to be incorporated into Gazprom. The fate of the company's two brand new drilling rigs worth $1bn, which have come to epitomise corruption in Ukraine due to their inflated purchase price paid via intermediaries, is still unclear - they are positioned in international waters, but linked to Crimea via pipelines.

Russia response

With the referendum results under their belt, Crimean officials, including Prime Minister Sergei Aksonov and parliamentary speaker Vladimir Konstantinov, set off for Moscow to discuss Crimea's accession to Russia - putting the ball now in the Kremlin's court.

The Kremlin is unlikely to blink - despite the threat of more sanctions from both the US and EU, both of which have refused to recognise the referendum. On March 17, European foreign ministers imposed EU-wide sanctions against 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials linked to unrest in Crimea. Washington followed suit with a list of its own, targeting seven top Russian government officials and politicians and four Crimea-based separatist leaders accused of undermining the "democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine".

Russian president Vladimir Putin is set to address Russia's upper and lower houses of parliament on March 18 about the issue at 3:00pm local time, according to an announcement on the Kremlin's website.

The likely positive decision will mark a nadir in Putin's international standing during his 14 years of holding power in Russia, but will probably mark the zenith of his popularity in Russia. "If Putin gets Crimea back for Russia without bloodshed, he will go down in history, whatever your stance is," opposition activist and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak said in a widely quoted phrase.

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