Referendum Will Decide the Future of Ukraine’s Crimea Region

Ukraine Crimea

KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) — Lawmakers in Ukraine’s Crimea region voted Thursday in favor of leaving Ukraine for Russia, which already has the Black Sea peninsula under de facto control, and set a referendum on the move for 10 days’ time.

Citizens of Crimea will face a simple choice: Stay in Ukraine or join Russia.

It’s not clear how easily the region could split off if the referendum endorses the move.

The autonomous region has a 60% ethnic Russian population, having been part of Russia until it was ceded to Ukraine in 1954 by the Soviet Union.

But not everyone may be as keen on coming under Moscow’s direct influence. A quarter of the peninsula’s population is Ukrainian and about 12% Crimean Tatars, a predominantly Muslim group.

The parliament in Crimea installed a new, pro-Moscow government late last month. It had previously said a referendum would be held at the end of March on greater autonomy for Crimea.

Citizens will now be asked on March 16 if they want an autonomous republic of Crimea within Russia; or within Ukraine.

Michael Crawford, a former long-serving British ambassador in Eastern Europe, cautioned that whatever the result, it may be meaningless.

“It does not follow that if Crimea votes to join Russia, that anyone will accept it,” he said.

“For Russia to start cherry-picking bits of the former Soviet Union, cranking up referenda in Kazakhstan or Latvia or wherever you like, to try to carve off bits, would be against international law, and it would be something Vladimir Putin has said he doesn’t want to do.”

Putin, the Russian President, has insisted Russia has the right to use military force in Ukraine if necessary to protect ethnic Russians.

But he has denied claims by Ukrainian officials and Western diplomats that Russia has sent thousands of troops into the region in recent days. Russia says the heavily armed troops, in uniforms without insignia, are local “self-defense” forces.

The deputy speaker of the Crimean parliament, Rustam Temirgaliev, said Thursday at a news conference that the only forces allowed in Crimea are the Russian military — and that all others will be considered to be occupying forces.

He said he’d advised Ukrainian troops to swear allegiance to the Russian army or leave Crimea under safe passage.

In the regional capital, Simferopol, residents have demonstrated this week against the interim government in Kiev, with crowds chanting in favor of Putin.

U.S. visa ban imposed

Amid the rapidly shifting diplomatic sands, European Union leaders are meeting in Brussels, Belgium, to discuss possible economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said via Twitter: “We stand by a united and inclusive Ukraine.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and European foreign ministers are also meeting in Rome.

The U.S. State Department on Thursday imposed a visa ban on Russian and Ukrainian officials and individuals responsible for, or complicit in, threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

President Barack Obama also signed an executive order laying the groundwork to impose sanctions against individuals and entities responsible for the crisis.

The impact of sanctions, if they were imposed, might be felt by other countries, too. Russian lawmakers are drafting a law that would allow the nation to confiscate assets belonging to U.S. and European companies if sanctions are slapped on Moscow, Russian state media reported Wednesday.

The Russian threat was not specific, but numerous large European and U.S. companies have interests in the region, and Russia is a major supplier of natural gas to Europe.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called on Russia ahead of the talks to stop stoking tensions in his country, saying Moscow should embrace a political solution to the crisis.

Speaking alongside Martin Schulz, president of the EU Parliament, he accused Russia of further “provocations” in Crimea and urged it to pull back its forces.

“We must take into account that there is a real, dangerous and dramatic situation and tension,” Schulz said.

At the same time, Schulz promised that Europe stood behind the new government in Kiev and a peaceful, democratic future for Ukraine. “We are behind you and your government, and we support you with all our means,” he said.

This includes ensuring that an 11 billion-euro aid package offered Wednesday by the European Union gets to Ukraine as soon as possible to shore up the cash-strapped economy, Schulz said.

Warship scuttled

Tensions remain high around military bases in Crimea, and there are concerns that violence may erupt as tempers fray.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense said unidentified Russian forces had scuttled an old warship to block seven Ukrainian vessels in a Crimean harbor under cover of darkness Wednesday.

Meanwhile, riot police are in a standoff against pro-Russian demonstrators outside government buildings in Odessa, a port city in southern Ukraine.

And in the eastern city of Donetsk, protesters took over a local government building Wednesday as they called for a referendum on the region’s status and greater autonomy, witnesses told CNN.

Russian criticism

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier criticized the actions of NATO and a regional security bloc, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe

Their actions “are not helping to create an atmosphere of dialogue and constructive cooperation” on Ukraine, he said.

The OSCE said Wednesday it had sent 35 unarmed military observers to Odessa in response to a request from Kiev.

Meanwhile, NATO warned it was reviewing its relationship with Russia and suspending some joint undertakings.

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