By John-Thor Dahlburg and Mike Eckel
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine -- Fireworks exploded and Russian flags fluttered above jubilant crowds Sunday after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
(MLV's Michael Peterson comments on the Crimean crisis: "Oil and Natural Gas Markets Won't Freeze Up If Crimea Splits.")
The United States and Europe condemned the ballot as illegal and destabilizing and were expected to slap sanctions against Russia for it.Ukraine's new government in Kiev called the referendum a "circus" directed at gunpoint by Moscow - referring to the thousands of Russian troops now in the strategic Black Sea peninsula after seizing it two weeks ago. But after the polls closed late Sunday, crowds of ethnic Russians in the regional Crimean capital of Simferopol erupted with jubilant chants in the main square, overjoyed at the prospect of once again becoming part of Russia. The Crimea referendum offered voters on the strategic Black Sea Peninsula the choice of seeking annexation by Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy. After 50% of the ballots were counted, Mikhail Malishev, head of the referendum committee, said more than 95% of voters had approved splitting off and joining Russia. Opponents of secession appeared to largely stay away Sunday, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play and land grab by Russia. But turnout was reported to be well above the 50% that would make the referendum binding -- and secession was expected to be approved overwhelmingly.
Russia was expected to face strong sanctions Monday by the U.S. and Europe over the vote, which could also encourage rising pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine's east and lead to further divisions in this nation of 46 million. Residents in western Ukraine and the capital, Kiev, are strongly pro-West and Ukrainian nationalist. The Crimean parliament will meet Monday to formally ask Moscow to be annexed and Crimean lawmakers will fly to Moscow later in the day for talks, Crimea's pro-Russia prime minister said on Twitter. In Moscow, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, suggested that joining Russia was a done deal. "We understand that for 23 years after Ukraine's formation as a sovereign state, Crimeans have been waiting for this day," Naryshkin was quoted as saying by the state ITAR-Tass news agency. Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky said the annexation could take "from three days to three months," according to Interfax.