People in Crimea took to the polls on Sunday for a referendum on breaking away from Ukraine to join Russia that has precipitated a Cold War-style security crisis on Europe’s eastern frontier.
Ukraine’s new government and most of the international community except Russia have said they will not recognise a result expected to be overwhelmingly in favour of immediate secession.
“This is a historic moment, everyone will live happily,” Sergiy Aksyonov, the local pro-Moscow prime minister, told reporters after casting his ballot in the regional capital Simferopol.
“This is a new era,” he said, after a man waving a Ukrainian flag was pushed away by security guards.
“We will celebrate this evening,” Aksyonov said.
Some 1.5 million people are called to vote on the Black Sea peninsula, which is mostly inhabited by ethnic Russians and has been seized by Russian forces over the past month.
Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov called on Crimeans to boycott the ballot, accusing Russia of engineering it as part of an invasion plan.
“The result has been pre-planned by the Kremlin as a formal justification to send in its troops and start a war that will destroy people’s lives and the economic prospects for Crimea,” he said.
AFP reporters saw voters cast their ballots in Simferopol and the naval base of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
“Everything will be easier. I’m only for Russia,” said Russian-born Raisa, a 77-year-old woman with a walking stick who was among the first to vote in Simferopol.
In Bakhchysaray — the centre of Crimea’s native Muslim Tatar community, which is urging a boycott of the referendum — only ethnic Russians were seen coming to vote.
“We have waited years for this moment,” said 71-year-old Ivan Konstantinovich, who raised his hands in victory after voting in the town.
“Everyone will vote for Russia,” he said.
Crimea says foreign observers are monitoring the vote but the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is not because it needs to be invited by a a member state.
OSCE military observers aiming to defuse tensions have been prevented from entering Crimea, which is at the centre of the worst East-West confrontation since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Voters can choose to become part of Russia or retain more autonomy but stay in Ukraine — a vote for the status quo is not an option.
Preliminary results were expected soon after polls close at 8:00pm (1800 GMT) and Russian flags were already being handed out in the streets in Sevastopol.
Preparations to become part of the Russian Federation — a process that could take months — are to begin this week if the people vote for Moscow.
Rehearsals for the big day have included a show by Cossack troops and the slogan “We are in Russia!” beamed onto the government building in Simferopol, leaving no doubt as to the expected outcome.
Pro-Russia authorities and Moscow say the referendum is an example of self-determination like Kosovo’s decision to leave Serbia but Washington says the vote cannot be democratic because it is taking place “under the barrel of a gun”.
Tensions have escalated in mostly Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine ahead of the referendum.
Three activists have been killed in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv in the run-up to the Crimea referendum and pro-Moscow supporters have called for similar separatist polls to be held in other Ukrainian regions.
– ‘Extremely worrying’ –
Russian troops and pro-Moscow militias took control of the strategic peninsula soon after the Kremlin-backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev last month in the wake of three months of deadly protests against his rule.
Russian lawmakers have also given the go-ahead for President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine when he wants, citing the need to defend ethnic Russians against ultra-nationalist radicals.
Ukrainian military bases in the region are surrounded by militias but there has been no armed Russia-Ukraine armed confrontation so far.
There have however been several attacks on journalists and pro-unity activists condemned by Amnesty International as “extremely worrying”.
It is also unclear what will happen to the thousands of Ukrainian military personnel currently based in Crimea after the secession vote.
Ukraine is on full combat alert and on the eve of the vote it accused Russian forces of seizing a village just outside Crimea, saying: “Ukraine reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia”.
– ‘Crimean Spring’ –
The diplomatic wrangling and brinksmanship over Crimea have been startling, including a confrontation at the United Nations Security Council in which Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk asked: “Do the Russians want war?”
Successive rounds of negotiations between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have failed and Kerry appeared to break diplomatic protocol by not showing up for planned talks in Moscow.
While the West has been powerless to stop annexation, Russia faces a painful round of sanctions against top officials that Washington and EU nations are set to unveil on Monday and it could be ostracised or even ejected from the Group of Eight (G8) leading world powers.
Local authorities are calling this a “Crimean Spring” but many Crimeans are simply confused and concerned about a possible legal vacuum and economic turmoil in their region.
“Whether we stay with Ukraine or go with Russia, it’s understandable that people are concerned,” said Aleksiy Yefremov, head of the student association “New People of Crimea”.
“We do not have enough information. Do we listen to officials in Kiev or to the local authorities?”
One immediate concern is about the availability of cash and there have been long queues outside banks with Crimeans rushing to take their money out.
Crimea would not automatically join Russia after the vote but Aksyonov said it could take “a year maximum”.
Ukraine’s government has said Crimea cannot survive on its own since it depends on electricity, energy and water supplies from the mainland.
Aksyonov has however assured residents that the region can manage with assistance only from Moscow.
“We are ready to sit without electricity, without water… We’re afraid of nothing and we want a historic choice,” he already said ahead of the referendum.