As A Big Vote Gets Closer, Crimea Grows More Distant From Ukraine

The pro-Moscow authorities in Crimea are preparing the ballots for Sunday's referendum on the region's future, but there's already a growing sense of isolation from Ukraine.

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There are just three days to a scheduled vote in Crimea. Ukraine warns that Russian troops are now massing elsewhere on its border and diplomatic tensions over the crisis are growing. Moscow calls its latest troop maneuvers routine but they take place with Russian forces already in control of the Crimean Peninsula.

And voters there face this choice on Sunday: secede and join Russia, or demand much more autonomy. The U.S. and European Union are strongly opposed to the vote. NPR's Gregory Warner reports now from Crimea.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: This morning in Simferopol, Mikhail Malyshev, the chair of the referendum commission in Crimea, told assembled press he was sorry that President Obama had already expressed a negative view of Sunday's referendum.

MIKHAIL MALYSHEV: (Through Translator) I think for the Crimean people who are going to participate in the referendum on March 16th, President Putin's opinion has a higher importance. Let President Obama not be offended.

WARNER: Malyshev was equally defiant on the subject of European election officials, who announced today they would not be monitoring the vote, citing the difficulty of scheduling planning meetings with Crimean officials. Officials, perhaps, like Mr. Malyshev.

MALYSHEV: (Through Translator) Frankly speaking, what's the sense for people who've already announced our referendum is not legitimate to come to control and monitor it?

WARNER: As Malyshev, wearing a dark grey suit over a black t-shirt, ran through details of ballots and polling stations, local journalists in the audience wondered privately who exactly he was. Even the organizers of this press conference weren't sure or couldn't say what he'd done before. A lot of unknown characters have been assuming key roles in Crimea in the last few weeks since Sergei Aksyonov, nicknamed the Goblin in criminal circles, declared himself the Crimean prime minister.

Though the meeting ended without much clarity about key details - for instance, when and how the results would be announced - a short distance away at an anemic pro-Ukrainian rally, an argument was breaking out about details.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: If Crimea is annexed to Russia, how would teachers be paid, wondered one woman. Would lawyers and accountants have to be retrained in a different country's loss?

RUSLAN ZUEV: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Ruslan Zuev, wearing a ribbon of blue and yellow, the Ukrainian colors, noted that in Crimea, it takes some months just to get a new passport issued. So how would the whole peninsula be suddenly issued Russian citizenship? Zuev said that he thought the actual referendum on Sunday would be peaceful.

ZUEV: (Through Translator) Everything will be as usual, as usual for Crimea. Some will come. Some will not come. But I know one thing, I'm scared to imagine what will be on Monday.

WARNER: Zuev says he's been beaten twice for raising these questions in public. Several pro-Ukrainian activists have been arrested over the past week in Crimea. Nearly everyone here at this rally had a story of being harassed by armed men. Natalia, who wouldn't give her last name out of concern for her family, said she wouldn't be putting in any vote on Sunday.

NATALIA: (Through Translator) I will not participate in such a shameful referendum. It can't be legitimate because it's being conducted while there are people with weapons walking around.

WARNER: It was hard to square the fear that Natalia and other protesters expressed, with the seemingly normal life being lived around this touristic peninsula on the Black Sea. There are armed men walking around everywhere, many of them these self-described Crimean defense forces. But many people see the men walking around the square as protectors, needed protection from the chaos they believe is blossoming in Kiev.

So when Natalia and her friends walk around the streets here, they don't carry Ukrainian flag colors. And when they come home from resistance meetings, the first thing they do is call each other to see if everyone got home safe.

NATALIA: (Foreign language spoken)

VICTORIA VELICHKO: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Troubles brought us together, says a third woman, Viktoria Velichko. And after Monday, she says, we're going to keep on living in our Ukraine. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Simferopol.

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