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On The Scene: Elizabeth Arrott in Simferopol, Ukraine

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Crimea's regional government is going ahead with plans to hold a referendum on breaking away from Ukraine and joining Russia. But with Russian troops and pro-Russian self-defense forces in control of the peninsula, those in favor of Crimea remaining in Ukraine say it couldn't possibly be fair.

Crimea’s pro-Moscow politicians have been out rallying support for Sunday’s referendum - giving the people of the Ukrainian peninsula a choice between joining Russia, or restoring Crimea's 1992 constitution and its status as an autonomous republic of Ukraine.

Like all members of the new, pro-Russia parliament, Deputy Sergei Tsekov came out in favor of uniting with Moscow.

“We will be happy in one week’s time because we will do what we have been waiting to do for many, many years,” he said.

At this and other rallies, pro-Russia sentiment is strong.

“I want for our Crimea to reunite with Russia. The Crimean land is Russia," said Simferopol resident Alexander Oseev.

Crimea has a long history with Moscow, and the majority of its population is ethnic Russian. But with the region under the control of Russian and pro-Russian forces, the idea of a free and fair vote is, to some, absurd.

While Russia denies its forces have moved beyond its leased bases in Crimea, columns of unidentified but widely believed to be Russian military vehicles move freely around the peninsula.

Pro-Russian self-defense groups are now joined by new Crimean Special Forces, sworn in this week by the region’s pro-Moscow prime minister in the name of ensuring stability ahead of the referendum.

“The most cynical thing in history is when people have to make a choice under the gun, when they are afraid about their children, their family,” said Refat Chubarov, a leader of Crimea’s Tatar minority.

Ukrainian leaders have condemned the vote, saying it violates national sovereignty, a position supported by Western allies, and should not be recognized as legal.

“I’m absolutely certain that this referendum could be recognized by North Korea and probably Syria, and that’s it," interim Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk told reporters. "We are appealing to Russia, the Russian Federation, to cancel immediately the referendum which is going to take place on the territory of the Crimean Autonomous Republic which is an inseparable part of Ukraine."

But such words so far appear to have made very little difference to what is happening on the ground.