Crimea’s Referendum: Rushing Toward Russianhood

Mar 16, 2014 at 3:01 PM ET

SIMFEROPOL, CRIMEA—Voters turned out in Crimea Sunday to vote in a Russia-backed referendum to decide whether the peninsula joins Russia or stays within Ukraine, but with increased autonomy. Many opponents of the annexation, however, seemed to be boycotting the vote.

The referendum, conducted after Russian troops and their local militia allies took control of Crimea at the end of February, was condemned by the West and the government of Ukraine as illegal; Russia described it as based on international law.

Exit polls later in the day showed that more than 90 percent of voters had opted to separate from Ukraine and join Russia, a not surprising result given the historical ties between Crimea and Russia and Russia’s beefed up presence in the peninsula over the last month.

The several polling stations I visited Sunday morning in Simferopol, the region’s capital, seemed to be busy, and the 15 or so people I interviewed—all ethnic Russians—said without exception that they had voted to support Crimea’s annexation by Russia.

The reasons they gave were a mix of patriotic feelings for Russia and expectations of higher living standards, as well as a fear and dislike of the Ukrainian national government, which many described as “fascist.”

Crimean Tatars, however, who comprise about 12 percent of the population, seemed to be mostly boycotting the vote. A polling station in a Tatar neighborhood of Simferopol was entirely empty, except for election officials, although the urn did contain perhaps two dozen filled-in ballot papers.

Many Tatars have described the vote as illegal and absurd, as it was organized under the intimidating presence of Russian and pro-Russian armed men. Their self-governing body, the Mejlis, has also advised Crimean Tatars to abstain from voting.

Many ethnic Ukrainians—one in every four citizens—have also said that they were not going to participate. Since Russians account for nearly 60 percent of the population, the referendum is expected to produce a yes vote. Results are expected soon.


Viktor, 55, security guard

“I voted to join Russia because it is our motherland, and I was born in the Soviet Union. My grandfather fought in World War II against fascism. I also think that life will be better in Russia.”

Alexi, 69, retired

“I voted for reunification because it is a big republic, a huge republic, and there is discipline there. I also think that economically things will improve.”

Katia, 21, student

“I voted for Russia because I think things will be better that way. In Ukraine, there are no prospects for young people.”

Valentina, 62, retired

“I voted for Russia because I think that life will be better than it has been in Ukraine. Higher pensions, that is the most important thing for me. Plus, we’ll escape the war that is now taking place in eastern Ukraine.”

Vladimir, 33, carpenter

“I voted to join Russia because it will be better to live there than in a country, Ukraine, that doesn’t even exist and now supports fascism.”

Nikolai, 26, security guard

“I am for Russia. Sixty years ago, Crimea was given to Ukraine like a sack of potatoes, even though it had always been Russian. And we are anti-fascists.”

Osman, 62, mosque attendant

“I didn’t vote at all because I’m a law-abiding citizen, and I think this referendum is illegal. We live in Ukraine, so why would I vote? I will vote for Allah.”

Diana, 27, shop attendant

“I didn’t vote. Why should I? Nobody will recognize this referendum anyway, so we will not recognize it either.”