SIMFEROPOL, Crimea – Lawmakers in Crimea voted today for this mostly Russian enclave to become part of Russia and moved up a referendum to decide the matter to March 16.
Ukraine’s interim government and Supreme Court have rejected talk of a Crimean referendum to determine its status, calling it unconstitutional. Russia says it will decide how to go forward after the referendum happens.
The referendum will asks Crimeans two questions: whether they want to be part of Russia or whether they’d like to adopt the 1992 Crimean Constitution, which would give Crimea more autonomy under Ukraine.
“We’re not working out what to do if Crimea joins the Russian Federation because we believe it’s unconstitutional,” Ukrainian interim Economy Minister Pavlo Sheremeta said.
Crimea’s new Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov has rejected the Kiev government, saying ousted President Viktor Yanukovich is the country’s rightful president. Aksyonov said Thursday that says 11,000 pro-Russian “self-defense troops” have joined Crimean military and riot police forces and now control all access to Crimea, the Associated Press reported.
“At this moment all Duma fractions are in favor of territorial integrity of Ukraine, but we understand the right of Crimean people for a referendum,” Russian parliamentarian Leonid Slutsky told the Interfax news agency.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked two days ago about Russia annexing Crimea, he told reporters: “Only the people who live in a certain territory have the right to decide their own future.”
A spokesman for the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said pro-Russian forces sank a boat at the opening to Donuzlav Lake north of Yevpatoria, bottling up Ukrainian warships in the lake. It is not clear how many military ships the Ukrainians might have had in the lake and ministry spokesman Maxim Prowta declined to say.
Prowta that just before midnight Wednesday, the forces filled an old ship with water and it is now partially submerged.
The Defense Ministry said it will be expensive and time consuming to remove the sunken ship.
Russian officials have repeatedly denied that the professional, heavily-armed forces that have taken control of Crimea are Russian, calling them Crimean “self-defense forces.”
“We do not have any power over them, they do not listen to our orders,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Madrid on Wednesday.
Lavrov met in Paris with Secretary of State John Kerry and their European counterparts Wednesday, but did not appear to make any progress in resolving the Ukrainian crisis. Lavrov did not meet with the acting Ukrainian foreign minister. Moscow doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the interim government, calling Yanukovich’s ouster a coup. Lavrov and Kerry are expected to meet again in Rome today.
Forty observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe arrived in Crimea today.
“The situation might seem quiet, almost normal, if you go to the streets,” said OSCE envoy Tim Guildimann in Kiev. ”However it’s extremely tense and I would consider it a miracle that bloodshed [has been] avoided so far given the political and even military circumstances on the ground.”