Ukrainians Scramble For Information Ahead Of Crimean Vote

On the eve of the referendum in Crimea, Ukrainians are reportedly nervous about what will happen after Sunday's vote. Correspondent Eleanor Beardsley talks with NPR's Arun Rath about the mood in Kiev.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Ukraine says Russian troops have moved to occupy a village and gas depot outside of Crimea. It's on a spit of land running along the Crimean peninsula. The Russians say they are protecting the gas depot from terror attacks. But for many Ukrainians, the foray outside Crimea is a sign that Russia does not plan to stop its land grab.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. So, Eleanor, what's happening there?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, the news is showing all these pictures of Russian soldiers and paratroopers. And they're reporting that helicopters have landed and Russian paratroopers have taken control of a village and a gas depot, and that they say they have to be there to protect it from terrorists. And people are very confused, scrambling for information, you know, huddled around televisions. It's really unclear exactly what's happening.

The Ukrainian government confirmed that the Russians did come and took over this village, but there were also reports that they were rebuffed. But it's not clear. The Ukrainian government did say that Ukraine has the right to fight back. But this is where it stands. People are very confused about what exactly is going on.

RATH: So what is the Ukrainian government in Kiev saying about where things go from here?

BEARDSLEY: Well, this afternoon, the minister of foreign affairs spoke, and he was obviously very agitated. And they just keep talking about diplomacy. They want to talk with Russia. And they say that this referendum that's being held tomorrow under Russian auspices, they say it's illegal, and they are completely ignoring it. But they're ready to talk about, you know, more independence for Crimea, more autonomy. But it cannot be done through fighting. It has to be through diplomacy.

People are actually really frightened. I went into a home today. A family - just a regular Ukrainian family on the outskirts of Kiev in one of these Soviet era apartment blocks, they have three kids. They don't have a lot of money, but they're already thinking of, you know, if the Russians invade in the east, what are they going to do? And they told me, we're going to go west. And if we have to, we'll go over the border into Poland, but we're going to get out of here.

So people are starting to think about putting their lives on hold. They're really - there's just a feeling here they don't know what could happen tomorrow.

RATH: And what is the expectation there from the west?

BEARDSLEY: Well, a lot of people here are talking about, you know, when Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal and the west said it would protect it. So at the very least, people say that there should be massive sanctions against Russia. And Senator McCain - John McCain is here, and he's saying that America needs to sell Ukraine arms and that the Ukrainians want to fight back. But the Ukrainians know that their army is about a sixth the size of Russia's. There's no competition there.

People just can't believe this is happening. The Russians are their brothers. This is very common - they have a common history, culture, language. I mean, the languages are very close. Everyone here speaks both. They can't believe this is happening. They fault Putin and his propaganda war for really the whole thing.

RATH: And what is the mood there regarding the referendum in Crimea tomorrow?

BEARDSLEY: Well, it's, you know, it's very tense. People don't know what to expect. But tonight, I went - this sort of sums it up. I went to the opera house, and they were having a 200th anniversary concert for the national poet Taras Shevchenko. And at the end, the last song, everyone rose and sang together. And it was apparently not their national anthem, but a very patriotic song. And it was absolutely moving.

It reminded me of that scene in the "Sound of Music" when the von Trapp gets up and they sing "Edelweiss," and everyone stands up to join them, you know, on the eve of Anschluss, the Nazi invasion. It really reminded me of that. There was a powerful emotion there. And I've taped it for you. And here, you can hear the crowd is joining in with the opera to sing this patriotic song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Kiev. Thank you.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you. Pleasure to be with you.

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