SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Fireworks exploded and Russian flags fluttered above jubilant crowds Sunday after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. The United States and Europe condemned the ballot as illegal and destabilizing and were expected to slap sanctions on 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 the choice of seeking annexation with Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy. After 50 percent of the ballots were counted, Mikhail Malishev, head of the referendum committee, said more than 95 percent of voters had approved joining Russia.
Opponents of secession appeared to have stayed away Sunday, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play and land grab by Russia.
The vote 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, strongly favor closer ties with the West instead of Russia.
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 come in as soon as three days, according to Interfax.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the referendum was conducted in “full accordance with international law and the U.N. charter.”
Some Crimea residents backing secession said they feared the new Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last month will oppress them.
“It’s like they’re crazy Texans in western Ukraine. Imagine if the Texans suddenly took over power (in Washington) and told everyone they should speak Texan,” said Ilya Khlebanov, a voter in Simferopol.
In Sevastopol, the Crimean port where Russia now leases a major naval base from Ukraine for $98 million a year, more than 70 people surged into a polling station in the first 15 minutes of voting Sunday.
Ukraine’s new prime minister insisted that neither Ukraine nor the West would recognize the vote.
“Under the stage direction of the Russian Federation, a circus performance is underway: the so-called referendum,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Sunday. “Also taking part in the performance are 21,000 Russian troops, who with their guns are trying to prove the legality of the referendum.”
As soon as the polls closed, the White House again denounced the vote.