SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Lawmakers in Crimea called a March 16 referendum on whether to break away from Ukraine and join Russia instead, voting unanimously Thursday to declare their preference for doing so.
“This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev,” Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the local Crimean legislature, said. “We will decide our future ourselves.”
The 100-seat parliament in Crimea, which enjoys a degree of autonomy under current Ukrainian law, voted 78-0, with eight abstentions in favor of holding the referendum, and for joining Russia. Local voters will also be given the choice of deciding to remain part of Ukraine, but with enhanced local powers.
There was no immediate response from the Ukrainian central government to the vote. On Wednesday, Ukraine’s prime minister told The Associated Press that Crimea would remain part of Ukraine.
In Moscow, a prominent member of Russia’s parliament, Sergei Mironov, said he has introduced a bill to simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia and it could be passed as soon as next week, the state news agency ITAR-Tass reported.
On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its residents have 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.
Earlier, Crimea’s new leader 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, but little progress was reported after a flurry of diplomatic activity in Paris on Wednesday involving U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
European Union leaders will meet for an emergency session in Brussels on Thursday to decide what sort of sanctions they can impose on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Moscow has threatened to retaliate if any punitive measures are put in place.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in Brussels for the summit, said Russia was continuing to stir up trouble.
“We ask Russia to respond whether they are ready to preserves peace and stability in Europe or (whether) they are ready to instigate another provocation and another tension in our bilateral and multilateral relations,” Yatsenyuk said.
In Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, about 50 people rallied outside the local parliament Thursday morning waving Russian and Crimean flags. Among the posters they held was one that said “Russia, defend us from genocide.”
“We are tired of revolutions, maidans and conflicts and we want to live peacefully in Russia,” said one of the bystanders, Igor Urbansky, 35. “Only Russia can give us a peaceful life.”
Maidan is the name of the downtown square in Kiev where tens of thousands of protesters contested the rule of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia.
Not all in this city favored the lawmakers’ action.
“This is crazy. Crimea has become Putin’s puppet,” said Viktor Gordiyenko, 46. “A referendum at gunpoint of Russia weapons is just a decoration for Putin’s show. A decision on occupation has already been made.”
Svetlana Savchenko, another Crimean lawmaker, said the choice she and her fellow deputies took in favor of joining Russia will force Moscow to make a decision.
“This is our principled position,” she told The Associated Press. “Now the Russian Federation must begin a procedure – will it take us in or not.”
Under the Soviet Union, Crimea belonged to the Russian Federation until it was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Concern that the turmoil could engulf eastern Ukraine grew after hundreds of demonstrators — many chanting “Russia! Russia!” — stormed a government building on Wednesday in Donetsk, a major industrial center near the Russian border.
Clashes between protesters and police broke out early Thursday in Donetsk as police cleared demonstrators from the regional administration center. The Ukrainian flag once again was hoisted over the building, and about 100 Ukrainian Interior troops could be seen in and around it. Two large trucks were parked in front to block the approach.
The European Union on Wednesday extended $15 billion in aid to help support the new Ukrainian government, which took over in late February after months of protests drove out Yanukovych, the Moscow-supported president.
The EU also imposed asset freezes against 18 people held responsible for embezzling state funds in Ukraine, including Yanukovych, his son and some of his closest allies.
Crimea’s new leader, Sergei Aksyonov, said his government was in regular contact with the Russian officials, including those in a large Russian delegation now in Crimea.
Speaking at Crimea’s government meeting late Wednesday, Aksyonov said the strategic peninsula is fully under the control of riot police and security forces joined by about 11,000 “self-defense” troops. All or most of these troops are believed to be Russian, even though the Russian president and defense minister have denied sending in the military other than those stationed at the home port of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Sergei Chuzavkov contributed from Donetsk, and Juergen Baetz from Brussels.