SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE —
Diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the Ukraine crisis intensified on Sunday with a phone call between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
A statement from Russia's foreign ministry said the two men had agreed on the need to push for constitutional reforms that would come “in a generally acceptable form and while taking into the account the interests of all regions of Ukraine." No details of the type of reforms under discussion were divulged and officials in Washington have yet to comment on Sunday's discussion.
Meanwhile, under grey skies and the occasional flurry of snow, voters in Crimea’s regional capital cast ballots Sunday in the controversial referendum on Crimean secession. The vote which took place across Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula offered to choices: break from Ukraine and join Russia, or revert to their status under a 1992 constitution, which gives considerable latitude to join Russia in the future.
Opponents of the vote see it as a sham, considering Russian and pro-Russian forces are in control now and the new local leadership, which came to power two weeks ago after armed men seized parliament, has already declared independence. The vote has been denounced by the Ukrainian government and its backers as illegal and a violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity.
A man casts his ballot at a polling station during the Crimean referendum, in Simferopol, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. (VOA/E. Arrott).
But for many voters, especially the elderly, the idea of coming back under Moscow’s rule - as in Soviet days - is a dream come true.
An elderly woman turns emotional after she casts her ballot. “It’s been 23 years,” she says, “don’t make me cry”
At another polling station in Simferopol, Crimean parliament member Vladimir Klychnikov prepares to mark his ballot for joining Russia.
He says people have the opportunity to determine their future. He calls it “a celebration - a celebration of democracy.”
And, indeed, a fair amount of money has been spent in the run-up to the vote to present this as a festive pro-Russian occasion.
Entertainers from already-Russian republics took to the stage at a rally in the capital to cheer voters to the polls. Among the acts were dancers from Russia’s Tatarstan, a nod to Crimea’s Tatar community, whose leaders vowed to boycott the referendum as illegal.
Crimean businessman and ethnic Tatar Ervin Rustemovich is among those who spurn the idea of joining Russia.
He says people do not understand that Russia will not keep its promises, adding “Any sensible person understands that - nobody cares about us.”
Many people do care what is happening to Crimeans. But for those who want Crimea to stay clearly part of Ukraine, there does not appear much they can do.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials say Russia now has 22-thousand troops in Crimea in violation of an agreement that set the limit at 12,500. Officials in Kyiv say they will try and raise 20-thousand recruits for a new national guard force.
Acting defense minister Ihor Tenyukh told journalists on Sunday that the defense ministries in Kyiv and Moscow had declared a truce until March 21 during which time Russian forces would leave Ukrainian military facilities untouched according to Reuters.