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Crimea Heats Up Ahead of Referendum Vote

Artillery, propoganda, and rumors pour into Crimea, hours before a crucial vote to decide its Ukrainian or Russian nationality.
By Tova Dvorin
First Publish: 3/16/2014, 8:14 AM

Russian troops in Crimean border town of Baklava
Russian troops in Crimean border town of Baklava
Reuters

Tensions continue to snowball in Crimea on Sunday, as a referendum vote is due in the disputed territory over its nationality - as part of Russia, or as part of Ukraine.

Parliament already voted to join Russia earlier this month, unanimously supporting the move "to enter into the Russian Federation with the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation.” Sunday's referendum, if passed, would actualize the vote. 

Russian troops flooded to the peninsula over the weekend - bringing tanks, heavy artillery, and a shadow of fear with them. 

To add fuel to the fire, the foreign ministry in Kiev denounced an "invasion" by Russia's forces into its mainland, according to the Telegraph, when nearly 100 Russian troops - backed by armored vehicles and helicopter gunships - seized a gas pumping station on Saturday just north of the Russia-Crimean border. 

On Saturday, tens of thousands of Russian citizens flooded central Moscow to protest the rumored invasion of Crimea, which Russian authorities have claimed is less of an invasion and more of a "reunion." Holding Russian, Ukrainian, and European Union flags, the protestors shouted, "No war. Putin, go to hell. Don't touch Ukraine." 

The peninsula itself has seen a different kind of tension over the weekend, as political programs on television hastily switched from pro-Russian propaganda to programs justifying the democratic nature of a referendum as international forces began to focus on the media coverage surrounding Sunday's vote. 

According to the Washington Post, the contrast is extreme: programs feature shots of Nazi-era propaganda, alternating with scenes of flowers, children, and puppies. 

Locals noted that while they thought the Nazi imagery was overdone, many were planning on voting to join Russia in any event - despite international pressure to remain united with the newly-elected Ukrainian government. The choice may be less political, and more cultural; Crimea has a large ethnic Russian majority, is Russian-speaking, and has long identified more with their eastern neighbor. 

Senior officials in Simferopol are denying reports, meanwhile, that thousands of voter cards have been sent to fraudulent addresses or in the name of the deceased, and that busloads of Russian citizens were being transported into the border region to vote in Crimea for Mother Russia. 

Journalists have also noted that they face increasing intimidation from Russian troops outside polling stations, and have been shoved and shouted at while attempting to glimpse the preparations for Sunday's referendum. According to the Post, at least one group of foreign press officials were barricaded into their hotel by Russian troops; the photography staff's flash drives and equipment were seized and destroyed. 

The news is the latest development in the crisis in the Crimean peninsula, which exploded earlier this month after 6,000 Russian troops invaded an airport in the Russian-speaking Ukrainian province. The US and international powers - including the EU and UN - have strongly protested what many perceive as Russian aggression.