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93 percent back splitting from Ukraine; U.S. , West reject referendum
Sevastopol, Ukraine - Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to leave Ukraine and join Russia, election officials said Sunday, capping a heavy-handed campaign that blocked most voters from hearing a vision for any alternative to unification with Moscow.
Mikhail Malyshev, a senior election commission spokesman in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, announced that with a little more than 50 percent of the ballots counted, about 93 percent had voted in favor of joining Russia.
The White House and Western governments rejected the referendum, conducted as thousands of Russian troops occupied the peninsula, and are eyeing sanctions. Ukraine's interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, dismissed the vote as a "circus" under the "stage direction" of Moscow. Russia has staunchly defended it.
A vote in favor of seceding from Ukraine was widely expected; ethnic Russians make up 60 percent of Crimea's population, and the region has deep historical ties to Russia. But the vote may only complicate the biggest standoff between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War and increase security fears in the rest of Ukraine and in other former Soviet states.
Tensions rose elsewhere in Ukraine on Sunday. In the eastern city of Donetsk, thousands of pro-Russian demonstrators rallied in support of following Crimea's lead and holding a referendum on joining Russia. Clusters of protesters stormed two government offices. Pro-Russian activists in Kharkiv, another troubled city in Ukraine's east, charged into a cultural center and burned Ukrainian-language books while several thousand Moscow sympathizers marched in the southern city of Odessa, according to the Reuters news agency.
Shortly before midnight in Simferopol, with tens of thousands of people jamming Lenin Square and nearby streets, Crimean political leaders announced the preliminary vote totals. Fireworks exploded overhead while a male chorus sang the Russian national anthem from a giant stage and people screamed and hugged one another.
In the Crimean Peninsula's other major city, Sevastopol, local vote results were announced on a concert stage in the biggest square.
Dmitri Belik, head of the city council, told the cheering crowd, "Sevastopol, we are in Russia! Thank you, citizens of Sevastopol, we did it with your help, and nobody is going to kick us out."
Election officials said 82.7 percent of eligible voters in Crimea cast ballots. But many opponents of the referendum did not vote: Crimean Tatar leaders, for instance, urged their community to boycott the referendum, and many ethnic Ukrainians vowed to stay away.
The vote marked the latest dramatic political development in Ukraine since Viktor Yanukovych, its pro-Russian president, abruptly decided in November to break off talks on an accord with the European Union and move closer to Russia. This ignited mass protests, which eventually prompted him to flee the country. Parliament named a pro-Western government in his place. With days, Moscow sent troops into the Crimean Peninsula, where Russia has a major naval base.
In Crimea, residents began celebrating hours before polls closed. In Sevastopol, drivers with Russian flags flying from their car windows sped through the city honking horns.
"This is a dream come true," said Irina Karbuk, a housewife whose husband was waving a Russian flag in Nakhimov Square. "We already are in Russia."
As voting was about to commence, Russia's military presence on the peninsula increased dramatically. A Ukrainian Defense Ministry official said about 50 military trucks carrying diesel generators were observed late Saturday on the road to Sevastopol. About 100 armored vehicles and trucks were seen heading toward a military airport near Dzhankoy in northern Crimea, said Vladislav Seleznyov, a ministry spokesman.
Acting Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh said Sunday that Russia had sharply elevated its troop presence in Crimea in recent days, bringing the total to 22,000. Tenyukh told the Interfax news agency that under basing agreements, Russia is limited to 12,500 troops in Crimea.
The United States and most Western countries have said that they will not recognize the results of the referendum, citing the Russian military occupation that began a few weeks ago and the crisis conditions under which the vote was called.
Even as Crimea voted, diplomacy appeared to shift into high gear. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone. While Putin defended the referendum as legitimate, a Kremlin statement said the two presidents agreed to "work together" to help maintain calm in Ukraine.
In an earlier phone call between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Lavrov insisted that the referendum was legitimate but also said that "the results should be the starting point in determining the future of the peninsula," according to a statement issued Sunday by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
In the State Department's version of the call, a senior official said Kerry had reaffirmed that the U.S. government will not recognize the outcome of the referendum. Kerry, the official said, "raised strong concerns" about Russian military activity near the Crimean border and "continuing provocations in eastern cities in Ukraine."
But the Russian and U.S. statements appeared to provide a flicker of optimism that the situation might be resolved without Russian annexation of Crimea.
The mood in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev was grim Sunday, with residents helplessly watching as their nation moved closer to losing the Black Sea peninsula.
Yet in Crimea, even as a morning rain poured down on voters in Sevastopol, some, like Tatyana Borodina, 44, were festive.
At School 3, where Borodina voted, a television in the hallway showed video of Sevastopol's monuments to the Crimean War, interspersed with jerking, black-and-white photos of soldiers doing battle for the Soviet army during World War II. A poll worker turned up the volume so the hallways filled with stirring, almost martial music.
"If I want to live in another city or another country, I can move," she said after voting to join Russia. "But Crimea should be Russian."
Security at polling places varied widely. At some schools, there was virtually none. At others, men wearing balaclava masks and armed with Kalashnikov rifles guarded entrances.
Some opponents of the referendum expressed skepticism that turnout was as high as officials said. But a steady stream of voters lined up to cast ballots. In half a dozen towns surrounding Simferopol, local poll officials said voters were showing up with exceptionally strong emotions about the referendum.
"People really want to express their feelings about what has been happening in Ukraine. This is coming from the heart," said Ivan Karpovich, the polling station chairman in the town of Kashtanovoya, where he said 60 percent of registered voters had cast ballots by noon. By the same hour in the previous election, in 2010, he said, only 21 percent of people had voted.
The two-week campaign was lopsided. The pro-annexation side held large rallies and erected billboards across the peninsula, while pro-Ukrainian rallies were smaller and more sporadic. The Crimean government stopped airing Ukrainian television programs and substituted them with programs from Moscow. Pro-Ukrainian activists and journalists were detained as the regional government warned that provocateurs might cause problems, and some complained of being beaten by vigilantes.
The majority of Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority, seemed to have stayed away from polling stations. At some, officials said they had not registered a single Tatar by early afternoon. Some Tatars sat glumly in their living rooms, watching the TV news, but others took part in an organized "vareneky protest," making Tatar-style ravioli stuffed with cheese and sharing it with their neighbors.
"This is totally illegitimate, and I can't bear to think about how things will be afterward," said Tatiana Zhritov, 40, a car mechanic's wife who made vareneky for her family Sunday. "I am Russian, and my husband is Tatar. We never had a single problem with anyone. Life is not perfect here in Ukraine, but it has been peaceful. Now Russia is trying to divide us."