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Crimea braces itself for Sunday’s referendum vote

March 15, 2014 at 7:04 PM EDT
Anticipation is building as Crimea prepares for a referendum vote on Sunday that the whole world will be watching. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with PBS NewsHour’s chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner about the atmosphere on the ground in the capital city of Simferopol.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: We’re turning now to the crisis in Ukraine. The NewsHour’s chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins us now from the Crimean capital city of Simferopol where a key referendum will be held tomorrow. What’s the atmosphere like on the eve of the vote that the whole world is watching?

MARGARET WARNER: Well Hari, this was proclaimed a day of quiet before the vote meaning no rallies, demonstrations or speeches. And in fact the day did apparently pass without any provocations or confrontations here in Crimea, but it’s totally enforced by Russian and Russian sympathetic, Russian supported Crimean troops. So for example when we came to the parliament today, these hordes of journalists to get our credentials for tomorrow, we were met by lines of Russian cossack soldiers. As you can see the russian flag is flying in the atrium of the parliament building. Right across from me, this is Saturday night, there’s a restaurant lit up with lights, but there are more Russian cossacks standing in front of it than there are Crimean customers walking in. And when we left town to go visit some villages, we had to run a gauntlet of Russian manned, or Russian irregular manned, roadblocks, where we simply let our Russian cameraman do the talking.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Today the election commission introduced the idea of independent international election observers. You were there, tell us about it.

MARGARET WARNER: Well Hari, they did say these were independent international observers , but when they started speaking to the press corps they sounded anything but. The first person to speak was from the Crimean parliament and she defended the election as completely fair, legitimate and legal under international law, and she went on to denounce the Americans saying that the government in Kiev was illegitimate and that whenever Americans called, they responded. The one American observer sounded much the same themes. A Serb-American from the Chicago area who writes for a conservative magazine said this will usher in a new era to end the global hegemony of the United States and he said at one point it was ironic that President Obama and Secretary Kerry were defending essentially a decision of a former Soviet leader, Khrushchev, to give Crimea away to Ukraine, when Vladimir Putin was the one upholding the democratic right of self determination. They are going to be running the monitoring operation at all the polling places tomorrow.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You said there was a sense of unease, what are people telling you about what may happen after the vote?

MARGARET WARNER: They do fear violence and that was exacerbated by late reports that in fact Russian forces of some nature moved into Ukraine proper today, north of Crimea to seize a fuel dump. Hari, above all, they fear violence. They fear violence coming to what has been a very peaceful part of Ukraine. A place where Russians and Ukrainians came to vacation and they really fear the unknown and I would say that people are most uncomfortable not about what will happen tomorrow in the vote, but what may happen next.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Margaret Warner, thanks so much.