Crimea secession nears as region's parliament votes to join Russia

By bne IntelliNews March 6, 2014

Graham Stack in Simferopol -

The Crimean parliament has passed a resolution on joining the Russian Federation, in a move that accelerates Russia's effective absorption of the Ukrainian region. According to Crimea's government, the decision takes immediate effect, but the next steps are for Russia to decide on the issue, and for a referendum to be held in ten days time to confirm the decision.

In a statement, the parliament in Simferopol said: "Expressing great concern regarding the social-political situation that has arisen around Crimea, confirming the priority of human values, observance of generally recognized principles and international norms, with the goal of realizing the expressed will of the Crimean people and in connection with the absence of legitimate organs of government in Ukraine... the Supreme Soviet of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, resolves: 1) to join the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation. 2) to hold a general Crimean (including the city of Sevastopol) referendum on March 16, 2014.

"This is a historic day. Crimea has become a part of Russian territory," said first deputy prime minister of Crimea, Rustam Temirgaliev, at a press conference following the parliamentary vote. "I am certain in the immediate future Crimea will become a fully-fledged member of the Russian Federation."

Temirgaliev said 78 out of 81 deputies voted for the decision, which was taken behind closed doors. "The decision of the Supreme Soviet took force at the moment it was passed," Temirgaliev said, adding that Russian armed forces were the only legal forces on the peninsula and that the armed forces of "third-party" countries - meaning Ukraine - would now count as "occupiers". He said Ukrainian troops could either take a fresh oath or leave the peninsula for the Ukrainian mainland.

The preamble to the resolution justified Crimea's secession with reference to the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv that ousted Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency on February 28. "The nationalist forces who seized power in an anti-constitutional coup d'etat have severely violate the constitution and the laws of Ukraine, the rights and freedoms of citizens, including the right to life, freedom of thought and word, and the right to speak in one's native tongue. Extremist groups undertook a number of attempts to enter Crimea in the aim of exacerbating the situation, escalating tension and for the illegal seizure of power," the preamble alleged.

Putin's choice

In comments made to television, the speaker of the Crimean parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, said it was now up to Russia whether to accept Crimea as a member of the Federation, since the referendum is likely to be a formality. "I believe over 70% of the population will support Crimea's choice to join the Russian Federation in referendum," Konstantinov predicted. Indeed, that's roughly the percentrage of the population on the peninsula that identifies itself as Russian.

In what appears to be carefully sychronised timing between the Kremlin and Crimea - a feature since this crisis began on February 27 when armed men seized the parliament in Simferopol - Russian President Vladimir Putin is currently consulting with the Russian Security Council about the Crimean parliament's appeal, according to the Kremlin's website.

Putin, speaking at a press conference on March 4, said that Russia is "not considering" absorbing Crimea. But he left himself plenty of wiggle room: he said that there was a right to self-determination of nations incorporated in the Charter of the United Nations, and referred to Kosovo's winning of independence from Serbia. "We will never provoke anyone to take such a decision and will never fan the flames of such moods," he said.

Adding to the sense of synchronization between Simferopol and Moscow, pro-Kremlin MPs in Russia's parliament, the Duma, introduced legislation on February 28 that enables Russia to accept secessionist regions of neighbours into the Federation, requiring only a referendum on the territory in question.

"We are witnessing special operations conducted by the FSB (Russian security services) where Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksionov and Deputy Prime Minister Temirgaliev are only playing roles written for them by their masters in the Kremlin," argues Andrei Klimenko, chief editor of Black Sea News, a pro-European internet resource for Crimea. "This evening we will hear Putin agree with the Crimean decision."

"Putin is accelerating the Anschluss of Crimea," says Andriy Yanitsky, a Crimean journalist and editor at national news portal Levy Bereg, referring to the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938. "It is hard to see how any referendum can be democratic given Crimean government's refusal to allow the UN or OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] access to the peninsula."

In a worrying sign of a media crackdown in the run-up to the referendum, Simferopol's broadcasting centre reported March 6 that armed men had entered and switched off pro-Ukraine channels Channel 5 and 1+1, switching on instead Russia's state-owned channel Rossiya 24.

People of Simferopol

There were no honking horns or outbreaks of joy at the news, nor indeed any opposition protests, on the streets of Simferopol in the hours after the parliament's decision at around 1:30pm local time. But initial soundings of opinion on the streets of the Crimean capital Simferopol were largely positive about the move.

"I agree and am happy about this," said Aleksei Lashenko, 30, an engineer, who said he considered himself now a citizen of Russia. "We used to be together in the Soviet Union and I think we are closer to Russian than Europe. Perhaps there will be some years of turbulence, but in the end everything will be for the better."

Two students of psychology were of divided opinion. "I am against this. I am a Ukrainian citizen and want to live in Ukraine," 18-year-old Natalia Kravchenko told bne. "My mother is Russian, and both she and I want to see expanded autonomy for Crimea of course." However, Natalia said she was not worried by the presence of Russian troops in Crimea, and said she had "a negative opinion" of "fascist tendencies" among the Euromaidan protest movement in Kyiv. Her friend, Sofia Levina, 19, said that, "Crimea is Russian and Ukrainians have never lived here... We have Russian flags flying at home".

Zoe Dudarev, 46, said she was "ecstatic at the decision". "It is my dream. My grandfather freed Crimea from the Nazis, we moved here in the 1970, regarding it part of Russia, and we were very upset when Russia surrendered Crimea in 1992".

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