SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine – Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to leave Ukraine and join Russia, election officials said Sunday, capping a heavy-handed campaign that blocked most voters from hearing a vision for any alternative to unification with Moscow.
Mikhail Malyshev, a senior election commission spokesman in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, announced that with a little more than 50 percent of the ballots counted, about 93 percent had voted in favor of joining Russia.
The White House and Western governments rejected the referendum, conducted as thousands of Russian troops occupied the peninsula, and are eyeing sanctions. Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, dismissed the vote as a circus under the stage direction of Moscow. Russia has staunchly defended it.
A vote in favor of seceding from Ukraine was widely expected; ethnic Russians make up 60 percent of Crimea’s population, and the region has deep historical ties to Russia. But the vote may only complicate the biggest standoff between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War and increase security fears in the rest of Ukraine and in other former Soviet states.
Tensions rose elsewhere in Ukraine on Sunday. In the eastern city of Donetsk, thousands of pro-Russian demonstrators rallied in support of following Crimea’s lead and holding a referendum on joining Russia. Clusters of protesters stormed two government offices. Pro-Russian activists in Kharkiv, another troubled city in Ukraine’s east, charged into a cultural center and burned Ukrainian-language books while several thousand Moscow sympathizers marched in the southern city of Odessa, according to the Reuters news agency.
Shortly before midnight in Simferopol, with tens of thousands of people jamming Lenin Square and nearby streets, Crimean political leaders announced the preliminary vote totals. Fireworks exploded overhead while a male chorus sang the Russian national anthem from a giant stage and people screamed and hugged one another.
Election officials said 82.7 percent of eligible voters in Crimea cast ballots. But many opponents of the referendum did not vote: Crimean Tatar leaders, for instance, urged their community to boycott the referendum, and many ethnic Ukrainians vowed to stay away.
The vote marked the latest dramatic political development in Ukraine since Viktor Yanukovych, its pro-Russian president, abruptly decided in November to break off talks on an accord with the European Union and move closer to Russia.
This ignited mass protests, which eventually prompted him to flee the country. Parliament named a pro-Western government in his place. Within days, Moscow sent troops into the Crimean Peninsula, where Russia has a major naval base.
Even as Crimea voted, diplomacy appeared to shift into high gear. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone.
While Putin defended the referendum as legitimate, a Kremlin statement said the two presidents agreed to work together to help maintain calm in Ukraine.
In an earlier phone call between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Lavrov insisted that the referendum was legitimate but also said that the results should be the starting point in determining the future of the peninsula, according to a statement issued Sunday by the Russian Foreign Ministry.