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27 Feb, 2014 11:55

Crimea parliament announces referendum on Ukrainian region’s future

The parliament of Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea has proposed a referendum to determine the region’s future amid the turmoil in the country.

Facts you need to know about Crimea

The region’s parliament said the all-Crimean referendum is about “improving the status of autonomy and expanding its powers.”

“According to the underlying principles of democracy, the presidium of the Crimean parliament considers that the only possible way out of the situation on the ground is applying the principles of direct rule of the people. We are confident that only by holding an All-Crimean referendum on the issue of improving the status of the Autonomy and expanding its powers Crimeans will be able to determine the future of the Autonomy on their own and without any external pressure,” Oksana Korniychuk, the press secretary of the head of the parliament, said in a statement on Thursday.

As a result of “the unconstitutional seizure of power in Ukraine by radical nationalists supported by armed gangs,” Crimea’s peace and order is “under threat,” the spokeswoman stressed.

The Wednesday clashes near the parliament’s building in Simferopol, which led to two deaths and about 30 injuries is “a result of rampant political extremism and violence gripping the country,” which could bring Ukraine to “complete chaos, anarchy and economic catastrophe,” Korniychuk said.

The Autonomy’s parliament thus takes “full responsibility for the future of Crimea,” relying on the will of its people, she said.

Korniychuk spoke hours after an unknown group of people barricaded themselves inside the building of the Crimean parliament and installed Russian flags there. The group, however, allowed MPs inside, including the speaker of the parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov. The MPs then held their session as planned.

A provisional date for the referendum has been set as May 25, which coincides with the early Ukrainian presidential and city mayoral elections, the Crimean Information Agency said, citing the chairman of the Supreme Council of Crimea, Vladimir Konstantinov. The Council will vote on a proposal to hold the referendum later Thursday and the region’s economy will also be discussed, he said.

An Interior Ministry member stands guard near the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol February 27, 2014.(Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

Hundreds of protesters have gathered near the building Thursday for an open-ended protest, demanding that a referendum on the status of Crimea be held. They held banners reading “Crimea for peace!” and “Crimea for a referendum!”

The demonstration came a day after two rivaling rallies of ethnic Russians and ethnic Crimean Tatars clashed near the parliament. While the pro-Russian rally demanded the parliament dismiss the new Ukrainian government as “illegitimate,” the Tatars spoke out against a split. Some of the demonstrators openly demanded Crimea be returned to Russia, from which it was separated in 1954, while others shouted “Crimea is Ukraine!”

Ukraine’s new government has sharply reacted to the situation in Crimea, showing no sign it wants to start a dialogue with the regional authorities.

Interim Ukrainian President Aleksandr Turchinov has said the buildings in Crimea were seized by “criminals in military fatigues,” and the Prosecutor General’s Office in Ukraine has opened a criminal investigation into separatist incidents.

Newly-approved Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, leader of the Batkivshchina (Fatherland) party, reacted by saying that Crimea “was, is and will be a part of Ukraine.”

However, according to Crimea’s Supreme Council chairman, the government in Kiev is doing everything not to enter into dialogue with Crimea, ignoring the concerns of its population and simply accusing it of separatism. The seizing of the parliament by the radicals should not come as a surprise, Konstantinov told the Crimean Information Agency, adding that the move was apparently inspired by similar actions that happened in other Ukrainian regions with impunity and were not condemned by the new government.

Crimea’s Russian majority has been hoping to hold a regional referendum ever since 1991, when it was refused the right to take such a step. Right before the Soviet Union eventually split, the vast 93.26 percent majority of Crimeans voted in support of establishment of the ‘Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic’ as a subject of a new Union state. The people, however, were never allowed to decide with which country the autonomous region should side – with Ukraine or with Russia.

While the Russian language has been a predominant among all ethnic groups of Crimeans, both in everyday and official life, it has been stripped of its regional status by a recent decision of new Kiev authorities. The move also hits Tatar language and languages of ethnic minorities in other parts of Ukraine.

Crimean Tatars hold flags during rallies near the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol February 26, 2014.(Reuters / Baz Ratner)

Kiev’s abolition of the regional status of minority languages has sparked criticism even from its European supporters. The European Parliament has called on the new Ukrainian government to respect the rights of minorities, particularly when it comes to the use of languages. Ukraine’s new leaders should distance themselves from extremists and avoid any provocation that might fuel “separatist moves,” MEPs said.

Some of the Ukrainian nationalist leaders have demanded a ban on the use of Russian language altogether in proposals reminiscent of processes in some of the Baltic states.

Russian Foreign Ministry’s commissioner for human rights, Konstantin Dolgov, responded to the situation by saying that the “attack on the Russian language in Ukraine is a brutal violation of ethnic minority rights.”

Russia, however, has been careful in assessing the developments in Crimea.

“Russia is not taking any provocative actions, especially on the state level. Today we consider it a fact that Crimea is a part of Ukraine,” the speaker of Russia’s Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, said in a television interview.

“But it is also a fact that currently we are witnessing certain moods that have emerged after no one asked the Crimeans’ opinion about the decisions that are being taken in Kiev,” she said.