Crimea referendum 'no surprise' for Russians

6:31 AM, Mar 16, 2014   |    comments
Members of the Crimean election commission prepare a polling station in Semfiropol, Ukraine.
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(USA TODAY) SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE-- What was widely expected to be a referendum under the barrel of guns kicked off quietly Sunday morning in Simferopol, Ukraine's breakaway region of Crimea, as early risers braved the rain to go vote.

And while Russian state television said Saturday that pro-Russian defense forces, which had flooded the peninsula since the beginning of the month, were on high alert to prevent "provocations" from pro-Ukrainian forces, not a single armed guard was seen in the vicinity of Polling Station No. 08086, at a gymnasium on Simferopol's Kiev Street.

"Of course I voted for joining Russia, I was born in Russia," said Raisa Dragunova, a pensioner in her 70s who voted there, tearing up as she spoke. "The referendum wasn't a surprise at all. I was so happy when I found."

Crimea's parliament, which in February refused to recognize the new Ukrainian government in Kiev and appointed pro-Russian businessman Sergei Aksyonov as prime minister of the semi-autonomous republic, called a snap referendum earlier this month, following violent clashes between Russians on one side and Ukrainians and some ethnic Tatars on the other. Residents of Crimea, up to 60% of whom are Russian, were given a choice of either joining Russia or opting for more autonomy from Ukraine under the 1992 constitution. The status quo, in which Crimea is a semi-autonomous region of Ukraine, was not an option.

Russia's pro-Kremlin parliament has vehemently welcomed the referendum and pledged to facilitate Crimea joining Russia in a move widely interpreted as part of President Vladimir Putin's attempt to annex Crimea. Putin, who authorized sending Russian troops to Ukraine on March 1, has insisted that Russia is only protecting Russians in Ukraine and would deploy armed forces only if necessary. Ukraine's new government in Kiev, headed by interim president Oleksandr Turchynov, has said that Russia has already invaded Ukraine, sending up to 22,000 troops to Crimea, according to Ukraine's Foreign Ministry. Kiev has refused to recognize the Crimean referendum, with Ukraine's parliament on Saturday voting to disband the Crimean parliament.

Those who voted Sunday were mostly Russian Crimeans who supported joining Russia.

"I'm for Russia. To be honest, I've waited for this for 20 years," said Eduard Kutalitov, a 38-year-old Russian factory worker. "I am a native of Simferopol and I identify with Russia."

Kutalitov said he believed that troops were sent to maintain law and order, but he hasn't seen any disorder from pro-Ukrainian forces. "It's quiet here, there's not going to be any war."

Those who opposed Crimea joining Russia did not vote because they said the referendum didn't give them any option.

"There's no choice to vote against joining the KGB-run government," said Nikolay Vasilyevich, a Ukrainian professor in Simferopol. "How can you vote with Russian troops around? Crimea will never join Russia, it will lead to war."

No voting irregularities were registered as of Sunday morning, according to local Crimean television, citing election officials. But a hack attack on Crimea's official referendum website was reported by the Russian state-controlled RIA Novosti news agency.

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