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How will Crimeans who oppose Russian annexation respond to referendum outcome?

March 17, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
After Sunday's referendum, Crimea's parliament dispatched a delegation to Moscow to work out details of joining Russia, reflecting the jubilation of that region's ethnic Russian majority. But not everyone in Crimea is happy about the results. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner talks with Judy Woodruff from Simferopol about the reactions on the ground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we take a close look inside Crimea as it moves toward Moscow, and what it means to those who call the Black Sea Peninsula home.

Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner is in Simferopol, and, tonight, she reports on a population facing an uncertain future.

MARGARET WARNER: Crimea’s Parliament convened this morning to endure Sunday’s referendum and formally implied to join Russia.

Like yesterday’s improbable margin of 96.7 percent, today’s move to break away from Ukraine was never in doubt. A delegation was dispatched to Moscow to work out the details. The swift action reflected the jubilation among Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority, thousands of whom partied into the night Sunday. They packed the capital Simferopol’s Lenin Square chanting “Rossiya” under Russian flags whipping in a frigid north wind.

On the streets this morning, we heard much the same.

VLADIMIR PETROVICH (through interpreter): Justice has been restored. We have been returned to our country, and we’re very happy.

MARGARET WARNER: We didn’t hear any sober reflection on the weighty questions of what comes next. Top on that list, what becomes of the Ukrainian territory here? It’s still under the command of the government in Kiev, which has denounced the referendum as illegitimate.

On Saturday, we met Ukrainian Air Force Colonel Yuli Mamchur, a Soviet army veteran and commander of the Belbek air force base 50 miles west of the capital. For three weeks, he and his men have held an uneasy standoff with pro-Russian forces surrounding them and most other military bases. His orders have been to secure his weapons and equipment, but avoid confrontation or bloodshed.

He dismissed warnings from Crimean authorities that, after the vote, Ukrainian forces will have to leave the peninsula or join the new Russian-affiliated Crimean military.

COL. YULI MAMCHUR, Ukrainian Air Force (through interpreter): We receive these kind of ultimatums all the time, but we stand firm by our position. Our superiors should solve this situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Last night, Ukraine’s acting defense minister said he and the Russians had agreed on a truce in Crimea until this Friday. colonel Mamchur conceded he had no idea what to do if pro-Russia forces try to force his unit to disbarred.

Have you received direct orders of what to do in different situations after Sunday?

COL. YULI MAMCHUR (through interpreter): We don’t have any forward-looking recommendations. We just keep calm, carrying on our duties. I have no more concrete instructions.

MARGARET WARNER: Can you imagine joining the Crimean army?

COL. YULI MAMCHUR (through interpreter): We’re true to our oath, but we will fulfill our constitutional duty to the end. There will be no transition to the Crimean army.

MARGARET WARNER: But we heard something quite different yesterday from another Crimean Soviet army veteran. Major Vladimir Kuzmenkov and other members of his paratrooper vets group were standing watch outside a polling place to prevent what he called provocations. I asked him, if Crimea votes to join Russia, who will take charge of securing the peninsula?

MAJ. VLADIMIR KUZMENKOV (RET.), Union of Crimean Paratroopers (through interpreter): We’re not worried about that. We will find a common language with Russian paratroopers who will come here. I don’t think any security issues will arise if and when Crimea separates from Ukraine, because we have a lot of colleagues on the Russian side.

MARGARET WARNER: What will happen to the Ukrainian army here?

MAJ. VLADIMIR KUZMENKOV (through interpreter): My professional opinion is that 80 to 90 percent of the personnel of Ukrainian army in Crimea are native Crimeans, so they will stay to serve here for the Republic of Crimea. If Crimea joins with Russia, they most likely would fall under Russian military command.

MARGARET WARNER: The prospect of full Russian control stirs unease among the Muslim Tatars, descendants of the Ottomans who once ruled here, but have suffered discrimination in Soviet and Russian times. Most boycotted the referendum. And in the garden of the 16th century Tatar palace in Bakhchisaray, geological engineer Marlen Zeytullaev told us some young Tatars will resist the outcome.

MARLEN ZEYTULLAEV, Geological Engineer (through interpreter): I am a Ukrainian. I will fight for this. This is our homeland. And we have nowhere else to go. If needed, we will take up guns. You can’t expect anything good from Russia. If someone is coming to our land with guns, we have no other choice. It is the last resort.

MARGARET WARNER: He believes the Tatars who resist will join the Ukrainian military, not launch a Chechen-style Islamic insurgency against Russia, and he conceded many Tatars will hunker down for now, while others take yet another course.

MARLEN ZEYTULLAEV (through interpreter): The tension is in the air. There’s a rift among the Russian community and the Tatar community, and many people have decided to leave, move to (INAUDIBLE) and other Ukrainian cities.

MARGARET WARNER: Some other Crimeans have already left, pro-Ukrainian activists who found themselves under direct threat in the weeks leading up to the vote.

KATARINA USHAKOVA: We knew that the results of the referendum will be like that when we started our fight.

MARGARET WARNER: Katarina Ushakova has remained, but at an art center last night, she and friends said they felt a deep sense of alienation after the landslide vote to join Russia.

KATARINA USHAKOVA: I was born in Ukraine, and I’m Ukrainian. And you can’t switch, change your citizenship just like that, just say, today, I’m Ukrainian, next day, I’m Russian, and the next day, I may be German, because Germany told me that, if I will join Germany, I will have lots of money and lots of possibilities.

MARGARET WARNER: She vows to stay as long as there are people like her who want to maintain the peninsula’s ties with Ukraine.

KATARINA USHAKOVA: I will stay here and help them. If not, I believe that I would leave, myself, as well, because I have been thinking for a long time that maybe, maybe I will be better if I go to Ukraine.

MARGARET WARNER: But most people we spoke to yesterday believe better days are ahead of them as part of Russia. In the small village of Urazhayone, with its old collective farm granary and a monument to Lenin proclaiming labor is an affair of nobility and heroism, music blared from the polling place in a cultural center and dance hall, complete with a disco ball.

Though the place was nearly empty of voters in the early evening, village council chairwoman Galina Urievna said turnout had been very high.

GALINA URIEVNA, Council Chair, Urazhayone, Crimea (through translator): It’s very important for our community. It brings hope for the future. Finally, what we earn will go to us and not to corrupt politicians somewhere else.

MARGARET WARNER: Grand expectations and a sense of promise for a future that remains uncertain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I spoke to Margaret a short time ago.

Hello, Margaret. And sorry you are having to talk to us in the rain.

People here in Washington are saying this vote was fraudulent. What are they saying there about that claim?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, before it started raining, we talked to people on the streets who, one, hadn’t heard of the charge and, two, completely dismissed it, the idea there were inflated vote totals.

They said, oh, you can’t read what you believe — you can’t believe what you read on the Internet. And then, about an hour ago, I talked to the media adviser to Prime Minister Aksyonov, who is one of those hit with sanctions by the Obama administration today. He hadn’t even heard about it.

And he just expressed total confidence that, in the coming days, President Putin and the Russian Duma are going to annex Crimea and it’s going to be a done deal. I think that really reflects the reality here, which is, whatever the international community is saying, the Russians and their supporters have established new facts on the ground and given President Putin a huge card to play here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret, in your report, you show that some people there are not happy with the results of this referendum. Is there a chance there could be violence?

MARGARET WARNER: I would hate to predict, Judy, but I don’t think so at the moment.

As you said, there are two sizable minorities unhappy, the Tatars, who are about 15 percent, the Muslim community here, whose ancestors were deported by Joseph Stalin 70 years ago, but they are known as a very moderate group. Then you also have ethnic Ukrainians and very young people born after Ukraine became an independent country.

They also are unhappy, but both communities seem resigned. Meanwhile, the acting president of Ukraine said about 10 days ago they aren’t sending Ukrainian troops down here to try to take this region back, because they will have no troops to defend Eastern Ukraine, where there’s a serious threat, they believe, from Russia.

And Russia has no incentive to foment disorder here, as they’re accused of doing in Eastern Ukraine. To the contrary, it’s in their interests to have things go smoothly now that they’re fully in charge. So you can never say never, but I don’t see it in the immediate future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, speaking of Eastern Ukraine, tell us where you’re off to next.

MARGARET WARNER: I am off to Eastern Ukraine, Judy, where there is serious violence between pro-Russian supporters, or Ukrainians, and also it’s alleged by Russians, against pro-Kiev, pro-E.U., pro-Western Ukraine Ukrainians, and people have been killed.

You have had mobs storming prosecutors’ offices, libraries, cultural centers. And I think that is where we are going to see whether this east-west confrontation over Ukraine is going to escalate further or, finally, perhaps through international negotiations, be tamed. So, that’s where I’m headed next.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, stay dry, but mainly stay safe. Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Judy.