In downtown Simferopol, at least 1,000 people on Saturday jammed a square in front of a soundstage and two massive TV screens as a long succession of Russian musical acts lauding "friendship of nations" and Russia itself. Musical acts from distant regions of Russia sang folk songs and danced traditional dance. One ensemble dressed as fairy-tale characters sang "Don't Fall Out Of Love with Russia!" No Ukrainian flags or colors were visible.
"We have our great mother, Russia, who has taken us in her arms," said 40-year-old demonstrator Nikolai Antonov. "If Russia hadn't protected us, we would have had to take up arms" against the new authorities in Kiev.
Posters pasted to walls throughout the city center made comparisons between Russia and Ukraine for gasoline prices, doctors' salaries and student benefits. The comparisons all suggested Russia was a more prosperous country.
But referendum opponents at a smaller rally said the economic argument is foolish.
"It's better to be poor and live in a normal country than to live in a police state," said Ine Sultanova, a 66-year-old retired engineer.
"I'm a citizen of Ukraine. I don't want to be a citizen of another country, or of Russia. It's well known what it's like to live in Russia. There's absolutely no civil society whatsoever. You can't say what you want. People can't gather for demonstrations unless it's good for the government," said Andrei Voloshin, a 20-year-old law student.
Details of the Friday night shooting in the city of Kharkiv were murky, but local news reports said it broke out after a skirmish between pro-Russia demonstrators and their opponents.
Violence has escalated in Ukraine's Russia-leaning east in recent days, as pro-Russia demonstrators have seized government buildings and clashed with supporters of the new Kiev government. At least one person died and 17 were wounded in clashes in Donetsk on Thursday.
Kharkiv, near the Russian border, is a hotbed of pro-Russia sentiment and opposition to the acting Ukrainian government that took power last month after Yanukovych fled the country in the wake of months of protests.
After the skirmish, according to the reports, there was gunfire outside a building housing the offices of several nationalist groups including Right Sector, which was one of the drivers of the protests against Yanukovych and that vehemently opposes Russian influence in Ukraine.
Russia has denounced Right Sector and similar groups as "fascists" who allegedly want to oppress ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
A spokesman for Right Sector in eastern Ukraine, Igor Moseichuk, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying the shooting was a "planned provocation by pro-Russian forces."
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page that two people were killed and several wounded, including a policeman who was seriously injured. He said some 30 people "from both sides" had been detained.
The victims' identities were not immediately made public. Moseichuk was quoted as saying the two killed were not among those inside the Right Sector offices.
The violence in Kharkiv and Donetsk has raised concern that Russia, which has massed troops near eastern Ukraine's border, could use bloodshed as a justification for sending in forces to protect the ethnic Russian population.
Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, warned Saturday that "there's a real danger of the threat of invasion of the territory of Ukraine."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday, after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said Russia has no plans to send troops into eastern Ukraine.
But in the wake of Saturday's movement, U.S. Sen. John McCain, part of an American delegation visiting Kiev, told a news conference that "the United States and our European allies will be contemplating actions that we never have had before in our relations with Russia."
Jim Heintz reported from Kiev. Yuras Karmanau in Kiev, John-Thor Dahlburg in Simferopol, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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