Simferopol, Ukraine - Pro-Russian leaders in Crimea made final preparations on Saturday for a referendum widely expected to transfer control of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine to Moscow, despite the threat of sanctions and condemnation from Western governments.
Sunday's vote, dismissed by Kiev as illegal, has triggered the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War, and ratcheted up tensions not only in Crimea but also eastern Ukraine, where two people were killed in clashes late on Friday.
The streets of the Crimean capital of Simferopol were calm on Saturday, despite a heavy military presence incongruous with the normally sleepy town.
Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, whose election in a closed session of the regional parliament is not recognised by Kiev, said there were enough security personnel to ensure that Sunday's vote would be safe.
“I think we have enough people - more than 10,000 in the self-defence (forces), more than 5,000 in different units of the Interior Ministry and the security services of the Crimean Republic,” he told reporters.
In Kiev, the Ukrainian parliament voted to dissolve the Crimean regional assembly which has organised the referendum and backs union with Russia.
One Ukrainian nationalist leader in the Kiev legislature said the Crimean assembly must be sanctioned to discourage separatist movements in the mainly Russian-speaking east of Ukraine.
Aksyonov and Moscow do not officially recognise that Russian troops have taken control of Crimea, and say that thousands of unidentified armed men visible across the region belong to “self-defence” groups created to ensure stability.
But the Russian military has done little to hide the arrival of thousands of soldiers, along with trucks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery. Masked gunmen surrounding Ukrainian military installations in Crimea have identified themselves as Russian troops.
Moscow leases the Crimean port of Sevastopol from Kiev to station its Black Sea Fleet.
Under the deal it can station up to 25,000 troops there but not on other Ukrainian territory.
The intervention follows the fall of Ukraine's pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich on February 22 amid street protests in Kiev over his decision to ditch a trade deal with Europe in favour of economic ties with former Soviet overlord Russia.
Most of Crimea's electorate of 1.5 million is expected to choose joining Russia in the referendum, reflecting an ethnic Russian majority. For many locals, the choice is as much economic as political.
“In Russia I can earn over three times what I do in Ukraine,” said Svetlana Dzubenko, a Crimean employee on Ukraine's rail network in her 20s.
“My pay now is 3,000 hryvnias ($300) a month, but in Russia I would earn 45,000 roubles, or about 12,000 hryvnias... I have nothing left once I've paid for housing, heating and food. What if I want to save up? What if I get sick?”
“CRIMES GO UNPUNISHED”
Pro-Kiev Ukrainians complain about the highly visible military presence and growing number of pro-Russian volunteers, many carrying batons, patrolling streets and conducting searches at Simferopol's main railway station.
“The Russians are intimidating us, beating us, they are abducting activists, they are exerting pressure on media, but we must persevere,” said Oleh Mykolaichuk, 21, at a small rally of around 100 people in Simferopol.
“We cannot fight them with arms, we must do it peacefully.”
Ethnic Tatars, Sunni Muslims of Turkic origin who make up 12 percent of Crimea's population, have said they will boycott the referendum, despite promises by the authorities to give them financial aid and proper land rights.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Saturday that self-defence units and paramilitaries in Crimea had attacked and harassed activists and journalists.
“Crimean authorities are allowing illegal and unidentified armed units to run the show in the peninsula, and to commit crimes that go uninvestigated and unpunished,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at HRW.
Aksyonov said there had been no attacks on journalists, blaming some media for provoking confrontations deliberately.
He also said this week that more than 80 percent of Crimeans supported the break with Ukraine and union with Russia, and that the referendum would be free and fair.
Aksyonov was cautious on how long Crimea's annexation might take should the vote go as he expects, saying the process could last up to a year.
But the United States and Europe could impose sanctions on dozens of Russians linked to Crimea's takeover as soon as Monday, even before the final referendum results are published.
Despite the regional government's confidence in that outcome, it was taking no chances, distributing fliers around Simferopol recalling the patriotic fervour whipped up by the Soviets during World War Two.
“Your Motherland is calling!” said one. “Say Yes to Russia!”
Russia has justified taking control of Crimea by saying it was defending its people against “fascists” in Kiev, a reference to far-right protesters who fought police in deadly clashes in the capital that led to the fall of the government.
Underlining the confidence authorities have in the outcome of the referendum, cinemas will begin dubbing Western films in Russian rather than Ukrainian.
But considerable uncertainty surrounds the future of pro-Kiev Ukrainians should Crimea become a part of Russia and of the thousands of Ukrainian troops who have looked on helplessly as Russian forces take over.
“All decisions on that are being made on a strategic level in Kiev,” said a Ukrainian defence ministry official in Crimea, Vladislav Seleznyov.
“We are trying to fulfil our duties here on the ground for now.” - Reuters