KYIV — A top European Union official labeled as illegal Thursday's abrupt decision by the Crimean parliament to hold a referendum to endorse a break with Ukraine.
The decision by Crimean lawmakers to schedule a referendum for March 16 on whether Crimea should become part of Russia is adding to tensions over the future of the Ukrainian peninsula, home to Russia’s Back Sea Fleet.
Western diplomats are trying to coax political leaders in Ukraine and Russia to negotiate a solution to the confrontation over Crimea, which Russian forces seized last week. And the decision by the region’s parliament to ask Moscow to consider its request to secede from Ukraine and join Russia is being seen by Ukrainian parliamentarians as an inflammatory move.
The European Union’s envoy to Ukraine, Jan Tombinski, says Crimea cannot secede from Ukraine and join Russia on the basis of a referendum restricted just to Crimea. Citing article 73 of Ukraine's constitution, he says such a referendum would be illegal.
“It stipulates that the only way is the all-Ukrainian referendum," he noted. "So, in the light of the constitution in force in Ukraine, in its territorial integrity, including Crimea, this is against the stipulation of the constitution.”
Speaking at a news conference, the EU envoy said only a nationwide referendum would have the legal authority to allow such a breakaway. Ukraine’s new interim leaders also denounced the move as “unconstitutional.”
During the vote in Crimea’s parliament, 78 of the region’s lawmakers voted in favor of holding a referendum and joining Russia. There were eight abstentions and no votes against the move. In a statement on its website, the parliament announced it had asked Moscow “to start the procedure” for allowing Crimea to join the Russian Federation.
In the referendum, the Crimean people will be asked just two questions: Are you in favor of reuniting Crimea with Russia? Are you in favor of retaining the status of Crimea as part of Ukraine?
Crimea has been a part of Ukraine since 1954, when Soviet ruler Nikita Khrushchev formally transferred the region to Ukraine. The region’s population is mostly ethnic Russian but is also the ancestral home of Muslim Tatars.
Ukrainian parliamentarian Lesya Orobets, one of the leaders of the uprising that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, says Crimea must remain part of Ukraine.
“We are not trading territory for peace," she said. "We have our citizens there. We have Crimean Tatars. This is their motherland. There are 300,000 living there. They are Muslims. That is their motherland.”
The referendum proposal will add a further complexity to ongoing diplomatic negotiations, say analysts.