The talk on the streets of the Ukrainian capital Monday was all about Sunday’s referendum in Crimea, which saw a close to unanimous vote in favor of the Black Sea peninsula seceding from Ukraine and becoming part of Russia.
Officially, the joining-Russia option on the ballot attracted a healthy 97 percent support from the 83 percent of registered voters in Crimea who made it to the polls. The most repeated tidbit was the voter turnout in Sevastopol, long a pro-Russian bastion, where a reported 123 percent of registered voters are said to have cast ballots.
Ukrainian news reports said that all one needed to vote was a passport, and it didn’t have to be a Ukrainian one. One reporter from Kiev showed his Russian passport and was handed a ballot and allowed to vote. This raised questions in Kiev if perhaps the Russian soldiers and Russian paramilitary occupying the area since late February had been allowed to cast votes.
It also raised eyebrows, because while an estimated 58 percent of the Crimean population is known to be ethnic Russian and very pro-Russia, the remaining 42 percent are not thought to be similarly smitten. Ukrainian opinion polls over the last decade have consistently shown Crimea to be more pro-Russian and in favor of secession than any other region of Ukraine, but previous polls had shown consistently that those favoring splitting from Ukraine and joining Russia numbered about 40 percent.
And while there were differences between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian sides on how extensively Crimean Tatars, the region’s traditional ethnic group, boycotted the vote, it was clear that many did. The low estimate said that 60 percent of Tatars, who make up about 12 percent of the total Crimean population, refused to vote. Pro-Ukraine advocates insisted 99 percent of Tatars boycotted. In either case, the admitted absence of such a large voting bloc raised further questions about the turnout numbers.
And many were asking the questions. Monday, even ears unfamiliar with the Ukrainian language couldn’t help but overhear the phrase “referendum” being muttered by pedestrians, in eye-rolling tones of voice. And, of course, the talk wasn’t limited to the underground shopping malls or the Maidan square protest crowds of Kiev.
Vitali Klitschko, a prominent Ukrainian member of Parliament and the former world heavyweight boxing champion, charged that those who favored secession had “sold out” Ukraine. He added that history shows that Crimea under Russian control puts Crimean Tatars in grave danger.
“We are afraid of ethnic cleansing,” he said at a news conference near the Maidan, or Kiev’s Independence Square.
Crimean Tatars have repeatedly pointed out their 200 years of repression under Russian rule and call former Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s forced relocation in 1944 of Tatars to other parts of the Soviet Union a “genocide.”
Ukrainian Minister of Defense Ihor Tenyukh said at an earlier press conference that Ukraine would never accept the results of referendum.
“Crimea was, is and will always be our territory,” he said.
By Matthew Schofield
McClatchy Foreign Staff