Pro-Russian Crimeans toast future with Moscow after vote

Pro-Russian protesters celebrating in Simferopol's Lenin Square on March 16, 2014 after preliminary results with half of ballots counted said 95.5 per cent of Crimeans voted in favour of joining Russia. -- PHOTO: AFP
Pro-Russian protesters celebrating in Simferopol's Lenin Square on March 16, 2014 after preliminary results with half of ballots counted said 95.5 per cent of Crimeans voted in favour of joining Russia. -- PHOTO: AFP

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (AFP) - Flags, chants and music plus plenty of alcohol filled the streets of Crimea's main cities on Sunday, March 16, 2014, after voters backed joining Russia and breaking away from Ukraine in a disputed referendum.

Some 5,000 people gathered in the historic port of Sevastopol for a celebration concert which started hours before polls closed and featured one of President Vladimir Putin's favourite bands.

Chants of "Sev-as-to-pol" and "Rus-si-a" rang around the city's Nakhimov Square, near the moored warships from Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

"Yes, I feel Russian - it feels great," said Ms Viktoria Niamchenko, 29, who was celebrating with a group of friends.

"We're here in a Russian town. We're hoping for a better future."

Some revellers let off Chinese lanterns while others carried flowers, painted their faces with the Russian flag or simply drank to what they hoped would be a brighter future from a hip flask or a beer bottle.

On the other side of the square, Ms Lucia Prokorovna, 60, carried a giant white, blue and red Russian flag and shouted with delight: "We're free of the occupation!"

"Ukraine was attached to Crimea like a sack of potatoes," she added.

"Today I visited the polling station - I only slept half the night hoping for the moment we would be with Russia."

Russian rock band Lubeh, favourites of Mr Putin and known for their patriotic songs, drew cheers as lead singer Igor Matvienko shouted "Hurrah Sevastopol!" and "Success for you!" between songs.

After the results were announced, a string of minor officials took to the stage to pay tribute to Sevastopol and Russia.

Even the chief of a gang of motorcyclists who had been riding around all day with Russian flags got to say a few words, to a rapturous reception.

Preliminary results with half of ballots counted said 95.5 per cent of Crimeans voted in favour of joining Russia. The vote may have been called illegal by the US and European Union - but thousands of pro-Moscow voters who spilled out on to the streets in both Sevastopol and the Crimean capital Simferopol did not care.

For them, this was their chance to return to their homeland.

On Simferopol's Lenin Square, there was another concert, more dancing and another sea of identical Russian flags on apparently identical telescopic poles.

As night fell and before the results were announced, thousands descended on the square, where a government building had "Crimean Spring" emblazoned across it with a green laser.

"I want Crimea to join Russia because Russia is home," said one reveller, 36-year-old Aleksiy.

"This is a great day. I'm going to change my passport to a Russian one as soon as I can. Life will be different and better." Amid a sea of Russian flags, 36-year-old Nikolai Terkach, a hefty builder, chose to carry the red hammer and sickle standard of the former Soviet Union.

"It's the flag of my childhood," he said. "For me, it's a patriotic symbol, something which is in my heart.

"Russia and the USSR are of course not the same thing but today, we're all feeling a sense of victory."

As revellers drank Shampanskoye - so-called "Soviet Champagne" - and local brandy, others reflected on what the future might hold.

Ms Tamara Lujkoka, 35, was carrying her two-year-old son in her arms.

"This little one will have no memory of Ukraine and that's good," she smiled.

"He has always been Russian, like us."

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