Crimeans Ready For Vote On Joining Russia

Residents of the Crimea region vote Sunday on whether to join Russia. The region is controlled by pro-Russian forces, and the Ukrainian government in Kiev has declared the referendum illegal.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

We are approaching a key moment in the standoff in Ukraine. On Sunday, residents of the Crimea region will vote on whether to join Russia. The government in Kiev has declared this referendum illegal, but the area is already controlled by pro-Russian forces.

NPR's Gregory Warner is in Crimea to tell us more about the voting and the scene there. Gregory, good morning.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So, give us a sense of exactly where you are and what you're seeing right now.

WARNER: Sure. I'm just a few miles from the border. I mean, I call it a border. It's one of two entrances to Crimea, but a few months ago, this wasn't a border at all. This was as easy to cross as Queens into Long Island. Now it's guarded by pro-Russian forces. I've seen several dozen armored personnel carriers, fuel supply trucks, satellite systems of military grade. And even 30 miles back from the border, they're digging these big ditches. Whether they're like trenches or whether to block tanks, I don't know.

We talked to some of the soldiers that are there, posted. Everybody said they're there for the same reasons, to defend Crimea against what they see as an illegitimate government in Kiev, the revolutionary government. The question though is: Why such firepower? They like to make fun of the Ukrainian military. Of course, the Ukrainian military is not nearly as strong as the Russian military. So why this tremendous amount of firepower? Is it - do they expect a war, or is it just a show of force?

GREENE: Well, and we should say that acting government in Kiev, they are saying very much the opposite, that it's this vote and this referendum coming on Sunday that is illegitimate. And they're concerned that you're seeing just the beginning of something, that there are Russian troops building across the border in Russia right now - not just troops, but long-range missiles. I mean, what do you know about that?

WARNER: Well, look, I mean, here in Kiev, people will say the Russians are only three hours away, and they think the Russians are coming, very seriously. However, we should also say that Crimea is a special case. I mean, even before all this revolutionary action that took place in Kiev, there was a separatist movement in Crimea, and Russia had a deep interest in claiming it for its own, or at least claiming it as not part of Ukraine. That's actually been a big issue since the breakup the Soviet Union. So, you know, there are signs that this could lead to war. However, it could end with Crimea being its own special case, and we'll have to see after Sunday.

GREENE: It's worth noting that there are a lot people in Ukraine who fear Russia might not stop with Crimea.

WARNER: Right. And, I mean, look, if you look at the votes that are being asked in the referendum, it is very interesting, because there's only two of them. Crimeans are being asked on Sunday to either join Russia, be annexed - the Crimean peninsula - to Russia...

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

WARNER: ...or to go back to the Constitution of 1992 and stay part of Ukraine. Now, again, they're not being asked: Hey, do you want to just keep things as they are? That's not an option. So what the Constitution of 1992 says - and not to get into all of it, but it calls for two important things: one is more economic autonomy. So taxes would stay in Crimea. And that's a huge blow to the Kiev government. But it also allows for dual citizenship.

So that's why a number of Crimeans - especially the minority, but a strong minority Muslim community, the Tatars - have said that they don't believe this is - that they're boycotting, in fact, they're going to have a region-wide demonstration later today. They say that this is illegitimate. And if you're here in Crimea, you feel this sense of isolation: produce starting to run off the shelves, people not getting the news that they want. So, you know, if this is a model for the breakup of the rest of Ukraine, that would be a scary proposition, indeed.

GREENE: So, the bottom line is a lot of people who wish that they could just live as they were living in Ukraine are saying that the choices are sort of Crimea be close to Russia or Crimea be part of Russia.

WARNER: Right. And either way, Crimea is more isolated than it was before. I think the worry, too, in the West is not only that this is a damaging precedent internationally and it's a real blow to Ukraine, but also that an independent - the more independent Crimea is, the more lawless, and the more it can be a spot for drug trafficking, human trafficking. There's a concern that the mafia has taken over Crimea. That's been said to me by a number of people. And you have disappearing - disappearances. People going to meetings, pro-Ukrainian meetings, all of a sudden, they don't get home. So that's the kind of climate that people are most frightened of will happen in Crimea, and continues to happen.

GREENE: We've been talking to NPR's Gregory Warnerm who is in the city of Armyansk in Crimea. Greg, thanks a lot.

WARNER: Thanks so much, David.

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