MOSCOW – Ukraine’s Crimea region would become an independent country if voters approve secession in a hastily organized referendum Sunday, the Russian-controlled regional parliament declared Tuesday in a shift away from plans for immediate annexation to Russia.
The change appeared to mark a change in strategy by Moscow to shield itself from accusations that it has orchestrated an illegal seizure of another country’s territory.
European Union and U.S. officials have threatened trade and travel sanctions against Russia if it persists in encouraging the predominantly ethnic Russian-populated Crimean peninsula to vote for cleaving itself from Ukraine. A tense international standoff has ensued after Russia sent troops into Crimea. Moscow and Crimean nationalists contend that the interim leaders in Kiev pose a threat to Ukraine’s ethnic Russian minority, which accounts for about 17 percent of its population of 46 million.
Ukraine’s interim government leader, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was headed to Washington for talks today with President Barack Obama. Yatsenyuk complained to Ukrainian lawmakers Tuesday that he was unable to get in touch with Russian President Vladimir Putin or Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to discuss ways to avert an escalation of the crisis, as United Nations and Western diplomats have urged since Russian troops seized the peninsula two weeks ago.
International law experts have noted that the Ukrainian constitution requires any changes in territory or borders to be voted on by the entire country. A 1994 agreement signed by Russia and Ukraine under international brokerage also suggests Western powers protect Ukraine from aggression by its nuclear-armed neighbor.
Putin and Kremlin-controlled media have cast the ouster of pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as an illegal overthrow by “fascists” and “criminals.” A three-month protest drove Yanukovych to flee the country Feb. 21.
The Crimean parliament voted Tuesday to ban “nationalist political organizations” involved in the recent leadership turmoil in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, from taking part in Sunday’s secession vote, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.
The legislation specified two nationalist parties, Svoboda and Right Sector, but also authorized security forces to detain and prosecute “anyone suspected of inciting ethnic hatred and calling for violence.” It was unclear how Crimean authorities planned to identify and disenfranchise those who will be ineligible to vote on the future of the Ukrainian region that hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet and its only warm-water ports.
Thousands of pro-Russia demonstrators have turned out for rallies in support of secession from Ukraine. Video from Western news agencies showed security forces pouncing on the few protesters attempting to display Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag or placards professing loyalty to the government in Kiev.