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Ukraine's Crimea gears up for referendum

Sunday, 16 March 2014 - 11:47am IST | Place: Simferopol | Agency: AFP
  • Crimea-referendum Employees prepare the polling booth in one of the polling stations of Sevastopol on March 15, 2014, on the eve of the referendum in Crimea. AFP

In the main hall of a school in Simferopol, voting booths and ballot boxes stand ready for Sunday's referendum, which is all but certain to decide that Crimea should become part of Russia.

Tatyana, an accountant who prefers not to give her last name, is part of the electoral commission in this neighbourhood of the Crimean capital and patiently waits for worried voters in front of the large registration lists.

"People are coming to check their name is really on the list," she tells AFP.

"Others tell us the name and address of elderly or sick people who will not be able to make it to the polling booth. The commission will send somebody with a ballot box so they can vote at home."

The self-appointed pro-Russian authorities in the Black Sea peninsula are getting no support from the new pro-European powers in Kiev, who replaced ousted president Viktor Yanukovych last month and have dismissed the referendum as illegal.

But they insist their voter registration lists, recycled from the last general elections in 2012, are up to date.

In the school's main hall, two large ballot boxes – about 1.5 metres (five feet) tall, made of transparent plastic and unlocked – sit proudly in the middle of the room alongside the white and green polling booths, ready to welcome the first voters at 8:00am (06.00GMT).

Maria, an 83-year-old lady with wisps of white hair escaping from underneath her blue scarf, appears with three passports.

"There's a handicapped person and an elderly 'babushka' who cannot make it to the polling station. I've come to give their addresses," she says.

A mother and daughter are close behind her: "Hello, we've come to check we're on the list."

Tatyana goes down the sheet of paper with her finger: "Katherina and Olga, yes it's fine."

Hope

In the school's entrance hall, under a map of Crimea, the yellow and blue colours of the Ukrainian flag can still be seen painted on the wall.

But throughout the city, it is the Russian white, blue and red that dominates. Giant posters depict mainland Ukraine as a Nazi sanctuary, juxtaposed with a peaceful Crimea under Russia.

The autonomous region, which was handed to Ukraine as a "gift" by Russia in 1954, has been at the centre of the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.

Now on Simferopol's Lenin Square, fierce-looking Cossacks guard the building that holds the regional ministers' council.

On the opposite side of the square, a large stage boasting Russian colours has been welcoming somewhat well-known speakers for the past 10 days, preaching to a crowd that has long shown its partiality for Moscow.

Russian song and dance performances, men's choirs with grave voices and military bands from Russia's Black Sea fleet -- which has been based in Crimea since the 18th century -- meanwhile provide entertainment amid a sea of flags.

People take pictures, applaud the pro-Russian slogans and wrap themselves in banners that are handed out.

At the back of the stage, a large canvas sheet shows a large bouquet of white flowers. The words on it read: "Crimea," "Spring" and "Hope".


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