cbc.ca (© Copyright: (C) Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, http://www.cbc.ca/aboutcbc/discover/termsofuse.html#Rss)
Updated: Sun, 16 Mar 2014 17:43:01 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Crimea election chief reports 95% vote to secede, half of ballots counted



A pro-Russia demonstrator gestures as others storm the prosecutor-general's office during a rally in Donetsk, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Pro-Russia demonstrators in the eastern city of Donetsk called Sunday for a referendum similar to the one in Crimea as some of them stormed the prosecutor-general's office. (© AP Photo/Andrey Basevich)

A pro-Russia demonstrator gestures as others storm the prosecutor-general's office during a rally in Donetsk, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Pro-Russia demonstrators in the eastern city of Donetsk called Sunday for a referendum similar to the one in Crimea as some of them stormed the prosecutor-general's office. (AP Photo/Andrey Basevich) The Associated Press

The head of the referendum committee in Ukraine's Crimea region says more than 95 per cent of voters have approved splitting off and joining Russia. 

Mikhail Malishev said the initial result came after more than 50 percent of the ballots had been counted. Russian news agency, Interfax, said voter turnout had exceeded 80 per cent.

Sunday's vote was denounced by the West and the acting Ukrainian government as illegitimate.

According to a statement released by the Kremlin, Russian president Vladimir Putin told U.S. president Barack Obama, in a phone call, that the Crimean referendum complies with international law. Putin also expressed concern about Kyiv's failure to stamp out violence against Russian speakers in Ukraine.

"Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin drew attention to the inability and unwillingness of the present authorities in Kyiv to curb rampant violence by ultra-nationalist and radical groups that destabilize the situation and terrorize civilians, including Russian speaking population," the Kremlin said

He suggested European monitors should be sent to all parts of Ukraine because of the violence, which the Ukrainian authorities blame on pro-Russian groups. Russian parliament has given Putin the authority to use the armed forces if needed to protect compatriots in Ukraine.

The Crimea referendum offered voters on the strategic Black Sea Peninsula the choice of seeking annexation by Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy. 

"It may take up to five days to ratify the referendum," said the CBC's Susan Ormiston from Simferopol, the capital of Crimea.  "They may introduce the ruble as soon as Tuesday...They have to look all kinds of national institutions like railways and water and gas infrastructures. Crimea doesn't have a lot of those. They come mostly from Ukraine, so Russia will have to negotiate deals."

The speaker of Crimea’s regional assembly said on Sunday that Moscow’s response to the referendum will be fast.

Opponents of secession appeared to largely stay away Sunday, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play/land grab by Russia.

Sunday's vote is taking place several weeks after Russian-led forces took control of Crimea, a predominantly ethnic Russian region. Its residents say they fear the Ukrainian government that took over when pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted last month will oppress them.

Since Yanukovych fled to Russia, Crimea has come under control of local militia forces, as well as heavily armed troops under apparent command from Moscow.

Crimea's pro-Russia authorities say that if Ukrainian soldiers resolutely occupying their garrisons don't surrender after Sunday's vote, they will be considered "illegal."

Ukrainian forces 'not going anywhere'

Ukraine's acting defence minister, Igor Tenyuk, said in an interview published Sunday by Interfax that "this is our land and we're not going anywhere from this land."

In Kyiv, the CBC's Margaret Evans says the mood has turned dark.

"I would say there's a deepening sense of gloom here for many people," she told CBC News on Sunday.  "For many people, they have gone through so much. They brought down this government...They are preparing for a war between Ukraine and Russia."

In Sevastopol, the Crimean capital where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based under a lease agreement with Ukraine, enthusiasm for the referendum was high, with voters lining up outside polling stations before they opened.

"We're watching the situation closely and will respond in close co-ordination with our allies," Jason MacDonald, a spokesman in the Prime Minister's Office in Ottawa said in a statement.

There are two questions on the referendum:

“Do you support reunifying Crimea with Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation?”
“Do you support the restoration of the 1992 Crimean constitution and the status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine?”

”The ballot actually doesn't give an option to stay in Ukraine," said CBC's Susan Ormiston, reporting from Simferopol in central Crimea. "The second option is to vote for an autonomous Crimea ... so the result is almost decidedly clear that this part of Ukraine will vote to go for Russia today."

This second question refers to a constitution that asserts Crimea is an independent state and not part of Ukraine. Reference to autonomy within Ukraine was inserted at a later date.

In Sevastopol, more than 70 people surged into a polling station within the first 15 minutes of voting.

Speakers blared the city anthem up and down the streets, giving Sevastopol a feeling of a block party.

A Russian naval warship stood blocking the outlet leading from the port to the open Black Sea."Today is a holiday," said one of them, 66-year-old Vera Sverkunova. Asked how she voted, she broke into a patriotic war song: "I want to go home to Russia. It's been so long since I've seen my mama."

At a polling station set up inside a historic school building in downtown Sevastopol, Vladimir Lozovoy, a 75-year-old retired Soviet naval officer, began tearing up as he talked about his vote today. Other voters cried out "Well Done! Hurrah"

"I want to cry. I have finally returned to my motherland. It is an incredible feeling. This is the thing I have been waiting for for 23 years and finally it has happened," he said.

Crimea's large Tatar Muslim minority opposes annexation to Russia.

Referendum a 'tragedy,' says Tatar minority

The referendum "is a clown show, a circus," a leader of the Crimean community, Refat Chubarov, said on Crimea's Tatar television station Sunday. "This is a tragedy, an illegitimate government, with armed forces from another country."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper today issued a statement on the referendum's outcome.

"The so-called referendum held today was conducted with Crimea under illegal military occupation. Its results are a reflection of nothing more than Russian military control.

"Any solution to this crisis must respect the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine as well as the constitution of Ukraine. Mr. Putin's reckless and unilateral actions will lead only to Russia's further economic and political isolation from the international community."

There are two questions on the referendum:

- “Do you support reunifying Crimea with Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation?”

- “Do you support the restoration of the 1992 Crimean constitution and the status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine?”

”The ballot actually doesn't give an option to stay in Ukraine," said CBC's Susan Ormiston, reporting from Simferopol in central Crimea. "The second option is to vote for an autonomous Crimea ... so the result is almost decidedly clear that this part of Ukraine will vote to go for Russia today."

About 300,000 Tatars live in Crimea and make up a Turkic ethnic minority of 12 per cent in a region where 58 per cent of the population is ethnic Russian.

With the recent shift in political leadership in Kyiv, away from Moscow's influence, Russian soldiers have been marking an X on the doors of Crimean Tatars to identity their homes.

Blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags were nowhere to be seen around the streets of Simferopol; red, white and blue Russian and Crimean flags fluttered around the sidewalks, city buildings and on many cars.

more video