DUBLIN (AFP) - Ukrainian opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko, recently freed after a two-year jail term, on Thursday slammed a decision by Crimean lawmakers to vote on whether to join Russia as illegitimate and unconstitutional.
The lawmakers said they would put the question of secession from Ukraine to a referendum in Crimea on March 16, further escalating tensions over the ex-Soviet state.
"I would like to ask you whether one can have an open, fair and democratic referendum under Kalashnikov guns?" Tymoshenko told reporters in Dublin at a convention of the European People's Party (EPP).
"Who will count ballots? Who will insure that the people's free will was reflected? That's why this so-called referendum is illegitimate." She said the referendum was violating Ukraine's constitution as any territorial question must be decided by a national vote.
Earlier, Tymoshenko addressed delegates at the EPP conference in the Irish capital. It is the first time she has left Ukraine since being released from prison last month, where she was serving a sentence on charges of abusing power.
"The Kremlin must understand that Ukraine is a state and not a territory," she said, delivering her speech in a wheelchair because of chronic back problems.
"Ukraine is a sovereign nation that is free to join Europe. It is not a colony that will be driven into a cage."
Tymoshenko was a leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution that forced the annulment of elections initially awarded to ousted former president Viktor Yanukovych.
She challenged Yanukovych in a bitterly contested 2010 presidential election, losing in a run-off and then finding herself the target of a string of criminal investigations that she claimed were aimed at ending her political career.
She was first arrested in August 2011 and two months later was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of abusing her power over a 2009 gas deal she signed with Russia when she was leader.
Vitali Klitschko, the former Ukrainian boxer turned politician, also addressed the EPP convention, telling reporters afterwards the future of Ukraine "will be decided in the next few days." "Our first goal is to do everything to solve this problem in a peaceful way. As soon as politicians are talking the crowds of people are staying silent," he said.
"It's absolutely important to solve this conflict without any drop of blood." Earlier Thursday, he joined a small group of people protesting against Russian aggression in his country, during which he condemned the decision by lawmakers in Crimea to vote to join Russia as a "provocation".
"It's a huge provocation against Ukraine and it's unconstitutional," he said.
He added: "Ukraine has to be an independent county. What's happening regards Crimea is provocation, I'm more than sure." The EPP are meeting in the Irish capital to launch the party's campaign for the European Parliament elections in May and to select their party president and candidate for president of the European Commission.
Due to the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, member states will for the first time have to take into account the result of European elections, to take place on May 25, when they pick a president for the European Commission.
The centre-right party's two contenders in Friday's vote are Michel Barnier, France's European commissioner and Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg.