Some 95.5% of voters in Crimea have supported joining Russia in a disputed referendum, according to partial results announced by officials.
Fireworks exploded and Russian flags fluttered above jubilant crowds Sunday after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. The United States and Europe condemned the ballot as illegal and destabilizing and were expected to slap sanctions against Russia for it.
Ukraine’s new government in Kiev called the referendum a “circus” directed at gunpoint by Moscow, referring to the thousands of Russian troops now in the strategic Black Sea peninsula after seizing it two weeks ago. However, after the polls closed late Sunday, crowds of ethnic Russians in the regional Crimean capital of Simferopol erupted with jubilant chants in the main square, overjoyed at the prospect of once again becoming part of Russia.
The Crimea referendum offered voters the choice of seeking annexation by Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy. After 50% of the ballots were counted, Mikhail Malishev, head of the referendum committee, stated that more than 95% of voters had approved splitting off and joining Russia. Opponents of secession appeared to have stayed away Sunday, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play and land grab by Russia.
Russia was expected to face strong sanctions Monday by the U.S. and Europe over the vote, which could also encourage rising pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine’s east and lead to further divisions in this nation of 46 million. Residents in western Ukraine and the capital, Kiev, are strongly pro-West and Ukrainian nationalist. The Crimean parliament will meet Monday to formally ask Moscow to be annexed and Crimean lawmakers will fly to Moscow later in the day for talks, Crimea’s pro-Russia prime minister said on Twitter.