Crimea slipping away from Ukraine

By Kim Sengupta

Declaration region now a part of Russia makes it hard for leaders to stop country being divided.

A resident of Simferopol in Ukraine's Crimea region shows his support for Russia by holding the country's flag outside the local parliament buildings yesterday. Photo / AP
A resident of Simferopol in Ukraine's Crimea region shows his support for Russia by holding the country's flag outside the local parliament buildings yesterday. Photo / AP

Crimea is now part of Russia; a referendum to endorse the decision would take place within 10 days; the only legitimate forces here are those of Vladimir Putin; the Ukrainian military are occupiers who must disarm and take up Russian citizenship.

These declarations by the state's government, in another day of drama, took the ongoing crisis to a new level, all but extinguishing the chances of Ukraine remaining undivided and further raising the possibility of violence.

The vote for Moscow rule was taken unexpectedly at the Parliament in Simferopol as Ukraine's new government held an emergency meeting with European Union heads of state. Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk immediately charged that the move was "totally illegitimate". "Crimea," he insisted, "is and will be an integral part of Ukraine and we urge the Russian Government not to support those who advocate separatism."

Watch: Crimea: Referendum on whether to join Russia

In Moscow, senior figures in the Parliament, the Duma, said constitutional issues over Crimea could be resolved as early as next week, with changes in the process making it easier for new territories to join the Russian Federation already under way.

The Crimean Government stated that it had decided "to enter into the Russian Federation with the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation" and Putin had been asked "to start the procedure". A Kremlin official said that the Russian President was aware of what had taken place but had decided not to make an immediate response.

The Crimean Parliament decided by a vote of 78-0, with eight abstentions, to bring forward a referendum for the second time and introduced, for the first time, the question to the electorate: "Are you in favour of reuniting Crimea with Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation?"

Watch: West won't let Kremlin carve up Ukraine

However, Crimea's Deputy Prime Minister, Rustam Temirgaliev, maintained that the referendum was only there to "endorse" the decision which has been already made by deputies: a decree making the changes came immediately into force from the moment of its adoption, he said.

Then he laid out the possibility of military action: "This meant that the only lawful armed force on the territory of the Crimea is the Russian armed forces. Armed forces of any third country are occupiers. The Ukrainian armed forces have to choose: lay down their weapons, quit their posts, accept Russian citizenship and join the Russian military. If they do not agree, we are prepared to offer them safe passage from the territory of Crimea to their Ukrainian homeland."

Watch: Ukraine PM: Crimea parliament's vote 'illegitimate'

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Some viewed this as seeking legal justification for military action against the Ukrainian forces. Some of their bases and warships have been under siege from the Russians for days while they defied ultimatums that failure to surrender would lead to an attack.

It is still felt unlikely that the Kremlin would want to get involved in a shooting war but there remains the possibility of strife sparked by clashes involving the "self-defence forces" of Crimean Russian supporters who now routinely confront the Ukrainian forces and are increasingly becoming armed. Sergei Aksyonov, the Crimean Prime Minister, announced that there are now 11,000 of the militia working with the Russian troops and the police. Some of them, it is believed, are members of Berkut, the riot police unit disbanded by the Ukrainian Government following the killings of demonstrators in Kiev.

Watch: Ukrainian economy in dire straits

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Attempts by international bodies to monitor what is happening on the ground have so far failed. A team from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe was prevented from entering Crimea at a checkpoint manned by "self-defence forces". This followed members of the same group driving the United Nations special envoy Robert Serry out of the city after he had visited the headquarters of the Ukrainian navy.

The Tatar community in Crimea, which is vehemently opposed to Russia, was asked by Refat Chubarov, the leader of its representative body, the Mejlis, to boycott the referendum. He pressed for international intervention, saying that was the only way to stop the country being hijacked.

"What happened to Robert Serry shows there is no longer any law or security here," he said. "What we need is an international force here to bring order. Those calling themselves the government in Crimea have illegally taken power and the result of this vote will be made up in Moscow.

"We are asking people not to turn up for the referendum, but those who are government employees may be forced to do so. I believe people of Crimea want to remain in Ukraine; they are being forced into Russia."

But for about 150 vocal people who had gathered outside Parliament, Russia was the natural home of Crimeans and the threat against achieving reunion came from "fascists" and "Nazis" from Kiev and the Western powers who sponsor them.

A group of elderly ladies had set up tables to recruit for the "self-defence force", in front of a Soviet flag. One of them, Natalya Vallanova, said: "We are looking for volunteers to defend our homeland. Every man is welcome, in fact, women should also take part, be active."

The only women activists to turn up soon, however, were topless, from the group Femen. The elderly ladies turned on them with fury, lashing out with fists, feet, handbags. The protesters were saved from a prolonged beating by former soldiers, in Cossack hats, who carried them off to the police.

News, later in the day, of the threat of non-economic retaliations - of the US sending F-16 fighter-bombers to Poland and a warship into the Black Sea - reinforced, for some, the view that the West wanted to return to the days of Cold War.

"Others die to ensure these military powers live, look what they have done to Iraq, how they destabilised Egypt and Libya," Leonid Kuzlov, a retired fireman, said.

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