Monday, 17 March 2014 | MYT 7:11 AM
Crimea votes to join Russia amid Western outrage
Fireworks explode in the sky over Lenin Square after the end end of a referendum in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine, 16 March 2014. - EPA
Simferopol (Ukraine) (AFP) - Crimeans voted overwhelmingly Sunday to join former political master Russia as tensions soared in the east of the splintered ex-Soviet nation, the epicentre of the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Partial results with more than half the ballots counted showed 95.5 percent of voters were in favour of leaving Ukraine in the most radical redrawing of the map of Europe since Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.
International condemnation began pouring in from world capitals long before the polls had closed but on the streets of Crimean cities thousands of people were celebrating the outcome with Russian flags and Soviet-era songs.
"I am happy. Honestly, I'm 60 and I never thought I would live to see this happy day," said Alexander Sorokin as he strolled the waterfront of Sevastopol -- home of tsarist and Kremlin navies since the 18th century and a city that like most of the scenic peninsula is heavily Russified.
Ukraine's new pro-European leaders and the West have branded the referendum "illegal" because the strategic Black Sea region has been under de facto control of Russian forces since the start of the month.
The choices facing voters were either to join Russia or go back to a 1992 constitution that effectively made Crimea into an independent state within Ukraine. Retaining good relations with Kiev was not an option.
In Kiev's Independence Square -- the crucible of three months of deadly protests that led to the toppling of the pro-Kremlin regime in February and prompted Russia to move its troops against its neighbour -- the Ukrainian national anthem rang out as thousands gathered and militiamen roamed the streets.
"This referendum is contrary to Ukraine’s constitution, and the international community will not recognise the results of a poll administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
The European Union said it would decide Monday on sanctions against Russia that include the possible seizure of the foreign assets of top Kremlin officials and travel bans for senior ministers.
"We reiterate the strong condemnation of the unprovoked violation of Ukraine's sovereignty... and call on Russia to withdraw its armed forces to their pre-crisis numbers," the EU said in a statement.
And British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the vote a "mockery" of democracy.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin -- accused of orchestrating the vote as a way of seizing Ukranian land and punishing its leaders for spurning closer ties with Moscow -- seemed unmoved.
The Kremlin said Putin intended to "respect" the vote's outcome and then reported a telephone conversation in which the Russian strongman told US President Barack Obama that the poll fell "completely in line with the norms of international law".
"Despite the differences... it is necessary to jointly search for ways of stabilising the situation in Ukraine," the Kremlin added.
In Crimea, thousands poured out across the main square and streets over looking the Black Sea for alcohol-fuelled celebrations that reflected a profound mistrust of the new Kiev leaders in the largely Russian-speaking southeast of the nation of 46 million people.
"This is a historic moment," Crimea's self-declared premier Sergiy Aksyonov told reporters after casting his ballot in the regional capital Simferopol.
He pledged to apply on Monday for membership of the Russian Federation following the results of the poll, where official turnout was put at over 81 percent.
Analysts warn that tensions in the southeast of Ukraine make the threat of a military escalation a reality that could result in an even further diplomatic and economic isolation of Russia.
Three people have died in clashes between nationalists and Russian supporters in Ukraine's southeast since Thursday -- the first fatalities since nearly 90 died in a week of carnage in Kiev last month -- and the region remained fraught with tensions.
Around 4,000 pro-Moscow activists rallied in the flashpoint industrial city of Donetsk to support Crimea's referendum and 6,000 turned out in Kharkiv with a large Russian flag and a sign reading "Our Homeland is the USSR".
Ukraine's interim President Oleksandr Turchynov -- not recognised by Russia and due to be replaced in elections due May 25 -- said the results had been "pre-planned by the Kremlin as a formal justification to send in its troops".
Not going to vote
Not everyone in the peninsula -- symbolically gifted to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 -- was happy to return to Kremlin rule.
Some had said they would spoil their ballots in protest and there was a call on social media for people to cook vareniki -- Ukrainian dumplings -- instead of going out to vote.
Crimean referendum commission chairman Mykhaylo Malyshev said his office had received no official complaints about violations. But accredited journalists including AFP were prevented from entering some polling stations in the port city of Sevastopol and in Simferopol.
Foreign observers were present although the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it would not monitor the vote because it was not officially invited by Ukraine's national government.
Crimea's indigenous Muslim Tatar community -- deported to Central Asia en masse in Soviet times -- largely boycotted the referendum.
"Of course we are not going to vote," said community leader Dilyara Seitvelieva in the historic Tatar town of Bakhchysaray. "The situation is very dangerous."
Russian lawmakers are expected Friday to debate legislation that would simplify the process under which the Kremlin can annex a part of another state -- a law that some analysts fear Putin may want to apply to other Russified regions.
"I now see an increasing risk that the conflict could spill into the rest of Ukraine," said UniCredit Research chief global economist Erik Nielsen.
"And that in turn would almost certainly trigger broader sanction (against Russia) likely to include some trade and investment areas."
The situation in Crimea -- an economically devastated region that had relied on Kiev's help to subsist -- also remains a worry.
The authorities are calling the vote a "Crimean Spring" but many locals are concerned about a possible legal vacuum and economic turmoil.
Bakhchysaray native Anna Ivanovna said she had voted to join Moscow but remained apprehensive about the future.
"Yes, we will be Russians. It's good but at the same time, at my age, it's hard to change countries."