Confidence, trepidation ahead of Crimea referendum

By Mike Eckel

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 13 2014 7:35 a.m. MDT

With persistent reports about harassment by paramilitary "self-defense" groups, some Simferopol residents say they are unwilling to walk outside after dark. Some ethnic Ukrainian residents of Crimea's capital city said their relationships with ethnic Russians friends and co-workers had become strained.

Sunday's referendum has been organized in the wake of last month's ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych after months of protests on the Kiev Square known as Maidan. For many ethnic Russians, the new government in Kiev represents radical Ukrainian nationalism.

Advocates of staying in the Ukrainian fold are not keeping quiet — despite the threat of violence.

At a pro-Ukrainian rally held next to a statue of the revered Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, more than 100 people gathered to hear speeches and sing the Ukrainian national anthem. Speakers led participants in chants including "Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Nation! Death to Its Enemies!" They exhorted people to raise money and bring food to Ukrainian soldiers who have been surrounded by Russian paramilitaries at their bases.

Participants carried signs reading "If You Want to Live in Russia, then Move to Russia" and "The Referendum Is A Step Toward War."

Dmitry Yermakov, an 18-year-old student at Simferopol's main university, said he'll flee if the referendum is adopted: "I'll try to leave the country, go someplace else" — suggesting Canada, which has a large Ukrainian population, might be a possibility.

Galina Dzikhayeva, 52, director of an arts center and organizer of volunteer medical clinics being set up in the event of violence, called the referendum "completely illegitimate" and a violation of Ukrainian law.

Asked if she would vote, she said: "What's the point? This vote is being conducted as a pro-forma way to create the façade of democracy here."

Mikhail Vdovchenko, 28, a self-employed handyman carpenter, carried a Ukrainian flag on a tall wooden pole that he made only that morning. He said he had started tying a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian ribbon to his jacket every day — experiencing an epiphany as an ardent Ukrainian.

"Last week, I didn't know I was a patriot," said Vdovchenko, 28. "I never thought I'd be wearing a ribbon like this. They've turned me into a patriot."

Amid reports of abductions of pro-Ukraine dissidents, Vdovchenko disappeared without a trace hours after the rally.

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