The consequences of what Crimeans are doing Sunday are theoretically massive. They are voting to break away from one country, Ukraine, and join another, Russia. It’s an act that has plunged relations between Russia and the West into what many are calling a new Cold War.
But at polling stations around Crimea, there was little drama or emotion to the actual act of voting on Sunday. The margin by which this peninsula’s two million residents have voted to join Russia won’t be known until the exit poll findings are announced sometime after 8 p.m. local time. But with the Russian flag already flying from many public buildings and thousands of Russian-backed gunmen deployed throughout the peninsula – the outcome is in no doubt.
Politicians in Moscow and Simferopol have spoken for weeks as though no outcome is possible other than a vote in favour of joining the Russian Federation. The referendum has been condemned in Kiev and Western capitals as illegal and illegitimate, but is being treated here as just one in a series of formalities on the way to making Crimea the 90th region of what is already the world’s largest country.
Next up, Russia’s parliament, the Duma, is expected to pass legislation to legalize the annexation of Crimea, which will mark the first time Russia has expanded its borders since the end of the Second World War. The ruble is expected to replace the Ukrainian hryvnia as the official currency here within a matter of days.
Nearly everyone who took part in Sunday’s referendum said that is precisely what they want. Crimea was part of the Russian Empire for 200 years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and many here say they wish had always remained under Moscow’s rule.
“It's a holiday. We’re returning home. I was never Ukrainian,” said Alexandra Sudareva, a 47-year-old hairdresser.
There’s also deep anger over last month’s revolution in Kiev, which toppled the government of the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych. The uprising has been portrayed on Russian television channels as a Western-financed coup d’état involving radicals with an anti-Russian agenda.
“Crimea was always part of Russia, even when it was part of Ukraine,” said Nadezhda Petrovna, a 64-year-old nurse who cast her ballot in a chemistry classroom in the centre of Simferopol. “We want stability. They have more in Russia. Here [in Ukraine], the fascists have taken over.”
Similar sentiments were repeated by every voter The Globe and Mail interviewed on Sunday. Of the dozens of marked ballots that could be viewed inside transparent ballot boxes, every single visible vote was marked in favour of union with Russia.
(The referendum was not a yes-or-no affair. Voters were asked to choose either union with Russia, or a return to Crimea’s 1992 constitution, which asserted the region’s autonomy from Ukraine.)
With opponents of the vote – including the government in Kiev and the region’s Crimean Tatar population – calling for a boycott, the most important figure arguably will be the level of turnout. Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst currently in Crimea, said he expected it would be in the range of 75 per cent, with the overwhelming share casting their ballots in favour of joining Russia.
The official figures, when they are released, will be dismissed by many in the West because of the absence of international observers – the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors most votes on the continent, respected Kiev’s wishes and decided against sending a mission – as well as the presence of the what the Ukrainian government says are some 22,000 Russian troops on the peninsula.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denies that the gunmen are Russian soldiers. They wear no insignia, but they are supported by armoured personnel carriers and supply trucks with Russian license plates.
That’s no problem to the handful of foreigners who were accredited to watch Sunday’s referendum as official observers.
“I would say this election doesn't seem to be less legitimate than the elections in Ukraine before,” said Johannes Hubner, an Austrian parliamentarian from that country’s far-right Freedom Party. “We see no signs of intimidation, no signs of a breach of security. We have seen Cossacks and militias standing around polling stations, but no one interferes.”
Mr. Hubner said turnout appeared to be low among the Crimean Tatar community, Muslims who make up about 12 per cent of the region’s population and who fear a return to Russian control after two centuries of violent persecution under first Tsarist and then Soviet rule.
“We’re not interested in this referendum. Nobody consulted the Crimean Tatars. We are the indigenous people here. We should have been consulted,” said Mustafa Mustafayef, a 58-year-old member of the local council in the predominantly Tatar city of Bakhchysarai. “What’s happening right now is aggression and occupation. They just took down one flag and put up another.”