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Crimea votes in favor of joining Russia

March 16, 2014 at 8:11 PM EDT
Defying international protests that called the process illegitimate, Crimea today went ahead with a referendum and voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. What was it like at the polls today? Hari Sreenivasan speaks with NewsHour’s chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner about today’s vote and what that could mean for Crimea in the coming days.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Good evening thanks for joining us. Defying international protests calling the process illegitimate, Crimea today went ahead with a referendum and voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. The vote came almost exactly two weeks after thousands of Russian troops occupied the region which has been part of Ukraine for 60 years, but is also home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. The NewsHour’s chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins us from Crimea. So what was it like at the polls today?

MARGARET WARNER: Hari the thing that surprised me today was really the high turnout we did observe at the four polling stations we went to. I mean, one it was 53 percent by 2 p.m. and another it was 63 percent by 5 p.m. The one exception was at a district that is heavily Muslim Tatar. They had said they would boycott the vote and it was only 10 percent. The voters seemed in a celebratory mood. The head of one polling station said ‘all Slavic peoples, this is a very big day for them.’ And what they said, they don’t understand that this is causing a huge east-west confrontation. Their concerns were really practical, really. They talked about having more jobs and investment if they joined Russia, and they also talked about feeling much more at home with Russia. You know this is an area that for 300 years was part of Russia and then the Soviet Union. And they all, almost all, complained about being forced to fill out forms in Ukrainian, for example. So there seems to be a kind of yearning, and also a feeling that the post-revolutionary government in Kiev is hostile, or at least has people in it hostile to Russian speakers and ethnic Russians here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Speaking of practical matters, how does Crimea become apart of Russia? How quickly could that happen?

MARGARET WARNER: It could happen quite quickly Hari. Tonight the official results are supposed to be announced at this celebratory concert that’s going on nearby. Tomorrow morning at 10 the Crimean parliament will meet in this building right behind me to quote: “evaluate the results.” But they’ve already said that if the public here affirms the idea they are ready to vote, and in fact they have voted to ask Russia to join. Now of course there is a group here, ethnic Ukrainians, who feel very alienated by this. We spoke to a group of them tonight who said they also did not vote, that they feel completely ostracized by the kind of move that’s underway here and they didn’t want to participate in something that seemed illegitimate to them. So it’s not a wholesale endorsement of this, but I think it’s going to move very fast at least on the Crimean side.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Are they ready for this kind of a move? It’s a big deal to secede.

MARGARET WARNER: It is a huge step Hari and of course we don’t know yet whether the Russian Duma will complete this circle, but the Prime Minister here, this new fellow Aksyonov — pro-Russian, pro-separatist — reassured people here he’s made plans already for getting gas and electricity which they currently get from Ukraine. And today the largest commercial bank here on Crimea, it’s actually the largest commercial bank in all of Ukraine, put a sign on its door today at 4:30 “Do to the conversion from the local currency to Rubles, the bank will not be open on Monday. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s a significant shift. So what happens in the next couple of days, the next coming weeks?

MARGARET WARNER: Well Hari, there are still huge unknowns, as I said. First of all, the Russian Duma has not voted, has not made this official. And there’s another unanswered question which is how quickly will Vladimir Putin, President Putin, and the Russians follow through on their threat to move into eastern Ukraine to protect Russian speakers and ethnic Russians there; that’s another thing that’s unknown. And of course, how quickly will the U.S. and the E.U. move to impose the sanctions they’ve threatened  Today the White House said it could come in a matter of days, but Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov did have a big conversation this morning at which they talked about resolving this perhaps diplomatically through constitutional changes to the Ukraine constitution. It’s a complicated set of issues but it would have to do with granting more autonomy to some of these regions in eastern Ukraine where Russian speakers are if not a majority as they are here, the ethnic Russians are a sizeable minority; it’s also the richest part of Ukraine. So I would say there are still several steps left to be taken, several shoes to drop. And I suppose there is a possibility, perhaps remote, of resolving this diplomatically in some fashion.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, NewsHour’s chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joining us from Crimea. Thanks so much.