Crimea MPs vote to join Russia as Putin strengthens his grip

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MPs in Crimea have voted to join Russia and called a March 16 referendum on whether to break away from Ukraine and become part of the Russian Federation.

“This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev,” Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the Crimean parliament, said. “We will decide our future ourselves.”

The 100-seat parliament in Crimea, which enjoys a degree of autonomy under current Ukrainian law, voted 78-0, with eight abstentions in favour of holding the referendum, and for joining Russia.

Local voters will also be given the choice of deciding to remain part of Ukraine, but with enhanced local powers.

There was no immediate response from the Ukrainian central government to the vote. Ukraine’s prime minister said on Wednesday that Crimea would remain part of Ukraine.

In Moscow, a prominent member of Russia’s parliament, Sergei Mironov, said he has introduced a bill to simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia and it could be passed as soon as next week.

On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its residents have the right to determine the region’s status in a referendum. Mr Putin called a meeting of his Security Council yesterday to discuss Ukraine.

A referendum had previously been scheduled in Crimea for March 30, but the question to be put to voters was on whether their region should enjoy “state autonomy” within Ukraine.

Earlier, Crimea’s new leader said pro-Russian forces numbering more than 11,000 now controlled all access to the peninsula in the Black Sea and have blockaded all military bases that have not yet surrendered.

The West has joined the new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev in demanding that Russia pull its forces back from Crimea, but little progress was reported after a flurry of diplomatic activity in Paris involving US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

European Union leaders were meeting for an emergency session in Brussels yesterday to decide what sort of sanctions they can impose on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Moscow has threatened to retaliate if any punitive measures are put in place.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in Brussels for the summit, said Russia was continuing to stir up trouble.

“We ask Russia to respond whether they are ready to preserve peace and stability in Europe or (whether) they are ready to instigate another provocation and another tension in our bilateral and multilateral relations,” Mr Yatsenyuk said.

In Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, about 50 people rallied outside the local parliament yesterday morning waving Russian and Crimean flags. Among the posters they held was one that said “Russia, defend us from genocide.”

But not all in the city favoured the MPs’ action. “This is crazy. Crimea has become Putin’s puppet,” said Viktor Gordiyenko, 46.

Under the Soviet Union, Crimea belonged to the Russian Federation until it was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Concern that the turmoil could engulf eastern Ukraine grew on Wednesday after hundreds of demonstrators – many chanting “Russia! Russia!” – stormed a government building in Donetsk, a major industrial centre near the Russian border.

Clashes between protesters and police broke out early yesterday in Donetsk as police cleared demonstrators from the regional administration centre.

The Ukrainian flag again was hoisted over the building, and 100 Ukrainian Interior troops could be seen in and around it. Two large trucks were parked in front to block the approach.

Opinion: Page 13

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