SIMFEROPOL, CRIMEA — Russians are officially on the streets of Simferopol. Not just the soldiers-without-insignia who took over the local parliament last month, but now diplomats from Moscow.
While observers from the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization are turned back at the Crimean border, Russian diplomat Sergei Ordzhonikidze defends the Crimean vote on whether to join Russia.
"I am here as an observer,” he said. "This is a dominating principle of the world: self-determination of people. If people want to live that way, let them live that way. It is their right to do that."
But the local lawmakers' "declaration of independence," as Ordzhonikidze puts it, comes as Crimea is under what Kyiv and Western powers call "Russian occupation."
Pro-Russia billboards are everywhere, with some presenting the referendum as a choice between Russia and the "fascism" of the new, pro-Western leadership in Kyiv.
The status quo is not an option on the ballot, which is one of several reasons many in Crimea's ethnic Tatar community are boycotting what they call an illegal referendum.
"We live in Ukraine, which has never been at war with any country in the world, annexed no land,” said Zair Smedlayev, chair of the electoral campaign of the Crimean Tatars. “That is why we are with Ukraine. But if the occupation of Crimea continues, then it is a problem."
Those problems have already begun.
Worries over the future have led to a run on banks, with others concerned about the status of property, rights and citizenship should the region come under formal Russian control.
Pro-Russian Crimean lawmaker Vladimir Klychnikov said those who don't want to become Russian nationals shouldn't worry.
"If the state under the name of Ukraine remains, then citizens of Crimea will be able to have also, say, all benefits and opportunities of that state," he said.