Voters in Crimea turned out in droves today to determine whether or not their country would remain an autonomous part of Ukraine or instead join Russia. In what was deemed a foregone conclusion by the West, Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to secede, with the head of the referendum committee reporting that 95 percent of residents backed annexation. The final tally is expected in the coming days, and the Crimean parliament will formally ask Russia to be annexed tomorrow. European nations and the US have denounced the ballot as illegal, and sanctions are expected going forward as Russia continues to stir old Cold War-era fears.
"We are one family and we want to live with our brothers."
According to the Associated Press, fireworks were shot after the polls closed, as Crimea's Russian ethnic majority celebrated the vote. "This is what we have been waiting for," Svetlana Vasilyeva, a Crimean veterinary nurse, told Reuters. "We are one family and we want to live with our brothers." Anti-Russian onlookers were more cynical with regards to Russia's encroachment in the country, however — alongside longtime residents on the ground, the newly-instated government in Kiev called the referendum a "circus" directed by Russia, and that separatist "ringleaders" wanted to destroy Ukrainian independence "under the cover of Russian troops." Suspicions of voting irregularities also surfaced in the midst of the ballot, as reports of voters registering with Russian passports turned up in corners of Simferopol. Russian president Putin, for his part, said that the referendum was conducted in "full accordance with international law and the UN charter."
The referendum followed a period of uncertainty over the country's future after opposition leaders ousted former president Viktor Yanukovych last month. Yanukovych fled Kiev for the Crimean peninsula only a day after brokering a deal for an end to the ongoing revolution, and was subsequently impeached by the Ukrainian parliament. Russia responded by deeming Yanukovych's overthrow illegal and deployed troops to the region. The Kremlin would even go so far as to block opposition websites that incited "illegal activities" in the country. However, tensions would nevertheless spread online; protests from both sides have defaced websites belonging to local news agencies, and hackers managed to shut down several NATO websites yesterday in the run-up to the vote.
"Russia's actions are dangerous and destabilizing."
The Obama administration has so far condemned the referendum, and warns that it will only throw the country deeper into crisis. "The international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence," it said in a statement. "Russia's actions are dangerous and destabilizing." Putin spoke with Obama and German chancellor Angela Merkel after the vote to discuss the option of international observers being sent to tense areas as a means of better stabilizing the region. Whatever is being done to assuage fears, with Russian troops still on the ground, the threat of violence is not far off.