Crimea to hold vote on splitting from Ukraine, joining Russian Federation

President Obama says the move is illegal under Ukrainian and international law; a referendum is to be held March 16

Pro-Russian supporters during a rally in Simferopol, Ukraine, on Wednesday.
Sergei Grits/AP

The parliament of Crimea, a majority-Russian peninsula in Ukraine currently under Russian occupation, has unanimously voted in favor of joining the Russian Federation and moved up a public referendum on the matter to March 16, decisions that the new government in Kiev called illegitimate and illegal.

Under the 1992 Crimean constitution the strategic peninsula is an autonomous republic within Ukraine, but the referendum to be held in 10 days’ time would ask Crimean residents whether they want to secede.

"This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev," Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of Crimea's parliament, told The Associated Press. "We will decide our future ourselves."

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

The region's deputy prime minister, Rustam Temirgaliev, said there would now be two questions on the ballot. "The first one: Are you in favor of Crimea becoming a constituent territory of the Russian Federation? The second one: Are you in favor of restoring Crimea’s 1992 constitution?"

Crimea was given to Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the peninsula officially became part of the newly formed state of Ukraine, although Russia has maintained its strategic Black Sea Fleet base there.

Temirgaliev added that Crimea could adopt the Russian currency, the ruble, and nationalize state property. "We are ready to introduce the ruble zone," he said, as quoted by Interfax news agency.

Ukraine's interim president, Oleksander Turchinov, responded curtly to the vote by saying that Crimean authorities are “totally illegitimate” and motivated by fear. “They are forced to work under the barrel of a gun, and all their decisions are dictated by fear and are illegal,” his spokeswoman quoted him as saying.

President Barack Obama echoed Kiev’s condemnation in comments to reporters gathered at the White House, calling the secession vote a “violation of international law.”

“Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must involve the government of Ukraine,” Obama said.

Later Thursday, Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone.

According to a White House readout of the call, while reaffirming the U.S. opposition to Russia’s “violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Obama urged Putin to facilitate a diplomatic solution between the two powers.

According to Obama, solving the current standoff would entail international support for direct talks between Russia and Ukraine, monitoring the rights of all Ukrainians, including its ethnic Russian population, removal of Russian troops from Ukrainian land and preparation for Ukrainian elections in May. 

About 11,000 pro-Russian troops are in control of all access to the peninsula and have blocked all Ukrainian military bases that have not yet surrendered, according to the regional leader, Sergei Aksyonov. All or most of these troops are believed to be Russian, although Moscow has repeatedly denied sending in soldiers, and they are not wearing any insignia.

Also on Thursday, President Obama signed an executive order imposing visa bans on individuals who are “directly responsible for destabilizing Ukraine,” including both Russian and Ukrainian citizens. Those affected by the order include “individuals and entities responsible for activities undermining democratic processes of institutions in Ukraine,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney.

A senior administration official added in a conference call that if Russia did not respond to international pressure to back down in Crimea, or if it showed signs of advancing further into Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, additional measures would be taken.

The EU meanwhile announced that it was suspending talks with Russia on a wide-ranging economic pact and on a visa deal. It also threatened further sanctions if Russia does not quickly engage in talks to end the crisis. 

After a meeting of EU ministers in Brussels, Donald Tusk, Poland's prime minister, confirmed that the EU members of G-8 had also agreed to suspend preparations for a G8 summit in the Olympic town of Sochi, slated for June.

As the diplomatic effort to ease tensions moves ahead, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk urged Russia to engage with international mediation efforts, with the United Nations and the European Union holding emergency meetings to discuss the crisis.

"We ask Russia to respond, whether they are ready to preserve peace and stability in Europe, or they are ready to instigate other provocations and tensions in our bilateral and multilateral relations," he said, according to Reuters.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who also met with Kerry in Rome on Thursday, on the sidelines of a meeting to discuss Libya, criticized developments of the last 48 hours, namely NATO's decision to suspend collaboration with Moscow and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sending a delegation to Ukraine.

In a statement published on Russia's Foreign Ministry website on Thursday, Lavrov said: "I want to very briefly say that we had a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the situation in Ukraine in relation to the actions that our partners are trying to take — action that does not help create an atmosphere for dialogue and constructive cooperation."

Kerry "made clear the importance of the Russians talking directly to the Ukrainians," U.S. diplomatic sources told journalists after the 40-minute meeting.

The U.N. Security Council will also hold a closed-door session in New York on Thursday to discuss Ukraine.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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