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The Day Crimeans Woke Up in Russia

A day after nearly 97 percent of Crimean voters opted to join Russia, the peninsula’s authorities unilaterally declared independence.
Photo by Frederick Paxton

A day after almost 97 percent of Crimean voters elected to join Russia in a referendum that pretty much everyone else considers illegal, the peninsula’s authorities unilaterally declared independence from Ukraine and put in their application to Moscow to formalize annexation.

On Monday, the Crimean parliament voted to change the peninsula’s name to the Republic of Crimea, to swap the currency to the Russian ruble, and move the local clocks two hours forward to synchronize with Moscow. Ignoring an onslaught of sanctions and international condemnation, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree late on Monday evening formally recognizing Crimea as a sovereign state — a likely precursor to accepting its annexation to the federation.


"I hereby decree that the Republic of Crimea, where the city of Sevastopol has a special status, be recognized as a sovereign and independent state," the document read, according to Russian state media.

Workers wasted no time in removing Ukrainian symbols from local government buildings, as shown in the tweet and video below.

— ?????????? (@NOVORUSSIA2014)March 17, 2014

Ukrainian symbols were removed from Crimean public buildings on Monday, following a referendum for annexation of the peninsula to Russia.

Within hours, EU and US officials imposed travel bans and froze the assets of Russian officials who supported the separatist move, saying the sanctions are evidence “that there are consequences for their actions.”

“The future of Ukraine must be decided by the people of Ukraine,” President Obama said at a press conference on Monday, during which he announced the measures. “Further provocations will achieve nothing except to further isolate Russia and diminish its place in the world.”

US President Barack Obama announced sanctions on Russian officials on Monday.

But in Crimea, where the referendum was celebrated with fireworks and dancing, the diplomatic fallout didn’t seem to spoil the party — at least for the vast majority of voters who turned up in support of secession. In Sevastopol, that majority reportedly reached an improbable 123 percent of the city’s population, raising questions about an already very questionable referendum.


The videos below show people celebrating the outcome of the vote in Simferopol on Sunday night, including by burning a Ukrainian passport.

Jubilant celebrations followed Crimea’s referendum on Sunday.

Video uploaded to Instagram by marquardtabc shows a man burning a Ukrainian passport in Simferopol.

“According to the Ukrainian central authorities and the international community, this referendum is completely illegal and an act of separatism,” VICE News correspondent Simon Ostrovsky said in his latest dispatch from the ground. “But I think the people here in Crimea really don’t care.”

Watch VICE News reporter Simon Ostrovsky’s latest dispatch from Crimea.

VICE News spoke to voters who had just cast their ballots in Simferopol, Crimea’s regional capital.

“For 20 years I’ve been telling my wife, ‘If only I could live long enough to see Crimea return to Russia,’” an elderly voter recalled. “Now my dream is coming true.”

“This country that I live in? May it go to hell,” one woman stated, fresh from casting her ballot to join Russia.

“Everything will change,” another voter said, reflecting a widespread optimism among ethnic Russians in Crimea. “That’s what we hope for.”

But those who disagreed with the referendum were nowhere near the polling stations — either because they boycotted the vote, or because they never received voter cards in the first place.

Ukrainian soldiers, on edge as Russian troops and ‘volunteers’ stepped up their presence in the region, were told by Kiev's central government not to vote. And the peninsula’s Tatars — a largely Muslim community with bad memories of the Soviet Union — chose either not to vote, or were not invited to the polls at all.


“I didn’t receive a voter card,” Murad Mamedov, a Tatar resident of Simferopol, told VICE News. “If they’d sent it to us we would have gone. We would have voted for option two,” he added, referring to the option to keep Crimea in Ukraine.

“We could have continued having friendly relations with Russia, as always,” Makhamad Sadykov, another Tatar, said. “There’s no reason to take us over.”

Crimea’s vote also sent ripples across mainland Ukraine, where opposing groups have been watching developments in the peninsula and fearing — or hoping — that the Russians would reach them as well.

In the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where two people were reportedly killed and dozens injured during the weekend, pro-Russian demonstrators protested on Sunday, demanding their own referendum.

The video below shows their large rally.

Pro-Russian demonstrators in the eastern city of Kharkiv on Sunday called for a referendum of their own.

In Donetsk, another eastern Ukrainian city, large groups of pro-Russian demonstrators have increasingly taken to the streets. Last week, they attacked a group of peaceful protesters calling for Ukrainian unity, killing three. Developments in Crimea seemed to further galvanize Donetsk’s separatists.

“This is not really Ukraine,” a woman there told VICE News. “We were all Russian, until they gave us Ukrainian passports in 1992.”

Watch VICE News reporter Simon Ostrovsky’s latest dispatch from Crimea.


Pro-Russia demonstrators in Donetsk stormed and occupied a public building on Sunday, as they have done several times in recent weeks.

The video below shows the assault.

Pro-Russian demonstrators in Donetsk stormed the public prosecutor’s office on Sunday.

“This referendum has really given momentum to the other people that have been calling for referendums in eastern Ukraine,” Robert King, a VICE News correspondent in Donetsk, said. "They’re hoping that Putin will come to protect them, and everyone I have spoken to would love to be part of Russia.”

“The Ukrainians that are not for the referendum are very nervous,” he added.

King said groups of Cossacks moved to Donetsk on Monday, claiming to come from Crimea. “One hundred percent of the people of Crimea voted for the referendum and there was not one dissent,” one of them told him.

“We’ll see what Putin does tomorrow, everyone’s expecting Russia to come to the border,” King added. “Everyone’s on edge. Who knows what the days ahead will hold for the future of this country.”

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi