Crimea lawmakers vote to split from Ukraine, join Russia; referendum planned
Efrem Lukatsky, Associated Press
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Lawmakers in Crimea voted unanimously Thursday to split from Ukraine and join Russia instead, and scheduled a referendum in 10 days for voters on the disputed peninsula to support or reject their decision.
Russian lawmakers, clearly savoring the action, said that if Crimea votes to become part of Russia, they will plan legislation that would speed up the procedure of making that happen.
The Obama administration slapped new visa restrictions against Russian officials and entities and some Ukrainians in Crimea who oppose the new Ukraine government in Kiev, and cleared the way for upcoming financial sanctions, as the West began punishing Moscow for refusing to withdraw its troops from the strategic region that also houses Russia's Black Sea fleet.
Ukraine's prime minister said the Crimean lawmakers' decision is illegitimate, and a European Union official warned that results of any referendum will not be recognized by the West.
The 100-seat parliament in Crimea, which enjoys a degree of autonomy under current Ukrainian law, voted 78-0, with eight abstentions in favor joining Russia and for holding the referendum on March 16. Local voters also will be given the choice of deciding to remain part of Ukraine, but with enhanced local powers.
"This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev," said Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the local Crimean legislature. "We will decide our future ourselves."
In Moscow, a prominent member of Russia's parliament, Sergei Mironov, said he has proposed a bill that would simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia. However, another senior lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky, said Russia's parliament could only consider such a motion after Crimea's referendum.
A senior Western diplomat said that the EU leaders, meeting in Brussels to discuss their response to Moscow's move, "will send a clear message that the referendum won't be recognized." The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't allowed to discuss the leaders' closed-door talks publicly.
On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its population has the right to determine the region's status in a referendum. Putin called a meeting of his Security Council on Thursday to discuss Ukraine.
A referendum had previously been scheduled in Crimea on March 30, but the question to be put to voters was on whether their region should enjoy "state autonomy" within Ukraine.
Crimea's new leader has said pro-Russian forces numbering more than 11,000 now control all access to the peninsula in the Black Sea and have blockaded all military bases that have not yet surrendered.
The West has joined the new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev in demanding that Russia pull its forces back from Crimea.
The U.S. sanctions announced Thursday targeted an unspecified and unidentified number of people and entities that the Obama administration accuses of threatening Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial borders. They were announced in Washington as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry headed into a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Rome on the sidelines of a diplomatic forum about Libya.
In Brussels, European Union leaders were gathering to decide what sort of sanctions they can impose on Russia unless it withdraws its troops from Ukraine or engages in credible talks to defuse the situation.
"We need to send a very clear message to the Russian government that what has happened is unacceptable and should have consequences," British Prime Minister David Cameron said as he arrived at an emergency meeting of the bloc's 28 leaders.
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