Crimeans vote to break from Ukraine, join Russia
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. 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.
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 honking horns.
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 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.