SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine – Crimea’s de facto prime minister predicted confidently Friday that voters in the peninsula region of 2 million people will turn out en masse and choose to rejoin Russia in Sunday’s referendum, asserting that “we have the right to decide” Crimea’s political status.
Sergei Aksyonov, the leader of Crimea’s rightist Russian Unity movement, airily parried questions at a news conference, asserting that there had been no armed intimidation and no unfair barrage of pro-Russia propaganda as the vote approaches. The annexation is popular within Crimea’s 60 percent ethnic Russian population but strongly opposed by its ethnic minorities.
“Where do you see any guns?” Aksyonov, 41, demanded at the event in the Crimean capital. Thousands of uniformed forces and civilian “self-defense” vigilantes have flooded the region in the past two weeks, but the premier said they had been sent to protect public facilities from provocateurs. “Do you see anyone aiming a gun at you?” he added.
He also dismissed Western criticism of the referendum, asserting the exercise would be “fair and transparent” with an 80 percent turnout. He said that foreign observers were welcome and that his pro-Moscow government was “not taking orders from anyone.” The husky former boxer and businessman with a murky past became premier Feb. 27 after armed men from his movement took over Crimea’s legislature and a vote was held behind closed doors.
The drumbeat of a well-
financed official campaign continued to intensify throughout the capital. By Friday, every thoroughfare was lined with pro-
Russia billboards. At a traffic circle, a two-story video screen showed endless scenes of pro-Russia rallies and a deep male voice promised voters security and prosperity as Russian citizens. Caravans of cars raced through the streets with Russian flags streaming out the windows.
In a park across from the parliament, Russian pop music blared from a boom box and young women handed out hundreds of tiny Russian flags. Vasilyev Maxim, a Russian official who had driven 18 hours to deliver the supply of flags, said Russian President Vladimir Putin was destined to prevail in his standoff with the West over Crimea’s fate. “In 30 years, the history books will say Putin took back Crimea to rebuild our country,” he said.
But on the quieter outskirts of the capital, hundreds of protesters lined up along a highway, holding up pro-Ukrainian banners and pale blue flags representing the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority group that has called for a boycott of the referendum. As they chanted, the drivers of dozens of passing trucks, buses and cars honked and waved in support.
“We want to stay with democratic Ukraine. We have lived in a free country for 20 years and we don’t want to go back to the land of the gulags,” said Gulnara Ajisalyevna, 53, a librarian of Tatar descent who grew up in forced exile. She was holding a hand-lettered poster that said, “Stop the illegal referendum!”
A 20-year-old engineering student at the rally, who gave her name as Elmas, said that she and her friends would stay home Sunday in protest but that they knew nothing could prevent the referendum from favoring Russia. “Still, we have to come out and protest,” she said. “I never believed such a disaster could happen to us. People need to know.”
Aksyonov, in his comments, pledged that no harm would come to Tatars and that plans had been made to handle a variety of potential problems in the forthcoming transition to Russian control. He said that hundreds of generators were ready in case power is cut off by the Ukraine government, that bank accounts and property would be safe and that Ukrainian soldiers would be allowed to resign or join “our Crimean army.”
He also promised that journalists would have nothing to fear from security forces while covering events in Crimea, although several foreign news crews have reported being harassed by armed or uniformed men in the past week.
“If anyone attacks you, come and tell me personally,” he said.
Carol Morello contributed to this report.