NPR Story
10:24 pm
Tue March 18, 2014

Crimea's Parliament Declares Independence

Originally published on Mon March 17, 2014 2:14 pm

Crimean lawmakers today approved a resolution declaring the peninsula independent. They then filed an appeal to join the Russian Federation, following the lead of Crimeans who yesterday voted overwhelmingly to break away from Ukraine.

The referendum had divided Crimeans, some of whom think joining Russia will bring better wages and living conditions, and others who accuse Russia of an aggressive land grab.

Moscow is strongly backing the referendum, with Russian President Vladimir Putin set to address a joint session of parliament tomorrow.

Meantime, NATO is vowing to intensify cooperation with Ukraine, saying it plans to increase ties with Ukraine’s political and military leadership, including efforts to build the capacity of the Ukrainian military.

Helena Bedwell is covering Crimea for Bloomberg News and joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss local reaction to today’s vote.

Guest

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Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. It's HERE AND NOW. In a few minutes, a prominent Silicon Valley libertarian weighs in on the minimum wage, and he says raise it.

YOUNG: But first, today the Crimean Parliament formally asked to join Russia following yesterday's vote by Crimeans. Also today, the U.S. and European Union imposed the toughest sanctions since the Cold War on Russia and Crimea, including travel bans and a freeze on the assets of people involved in the push for Crimea's secession. And President Obama threatened to impose even more sanctions.

So what is going on in Crimea? Helena Bedwell of Bloomberg News is there. She joins us by Skype. Helena, what is the feeling on the ground?

HELENA BEDWELL: Right after the exit polls were announced last night at 8 p.m. sharp, celebrations began all over Crimea. I was in the city of Simferopol, and I went outside to attend this rally, where the people were dancing, singing, waving flags of the Russian Federation, Soviet Union, believe it or not. So to be honest with you, it was not really a big surprise for the people. It was just a matter of time that they would actually - were preparing to join, as they say, to going back home, not to join Russia, which is very, very important.

YOUNG: Well, what about the Tatars and other minority populations who have been very fearful of this?

BEDWELL: Yes, definitely. Some say that does not matter, and they even can be living well right under the Russian Federation influence. But there's a majority. They own the authority which completely opposes this and calls it direct annexation. And they're actually quite afraid that they might be deported. And history, it's like history repeating for them.

YOUNG: Well, but what happens now? Vladimir Putin is going to be addressing a joint session of parliament tomorrow. We had heard in the run-up to the vote, there were two options, one to become independent, self-governing, more distant from Ukraine than the autonomy that they have now, the other to join Russia. Obviously they're doing both, becoming independent and asking to join Russia.

But we'd heard that Russia may not want to annex. It might be enough to destabilize the region in Putin's mind if Crimea just becomes independent. So are they worried about whether or not they will officially join Russia?

BEDWELL: No, I mean - no, not really. I have spoken to both of the government leaderships here, vice premier, as well as the prime minister of Crimea. I mean, today I met the vice premier, and he said the same thing. This option does not exist. We are definitely going under Russian Federation.

They even have dates set, like from the 30th of March they're going to be the Moscow time, they'll be working on the Moscow time, and from April they're going to be using rubles. So they're pretty confident about this all.

YOUNG: And how much do they need the rubles, for instance? We were hearing that in the run-up to the vote, there were runs on the banks. There wasn't enough cash to go around.

BEDWELL: Yes, I witnessed this, actually, because I've been going around the streets, and I saw these huge queues at the ATM machines and the banks. And when I asked them, mostly people were worried about social warfare, like pensions and salaries not paid in. And I've heard that the banks, you know, don't have enough cash, that obviously it's going to take some time.

As Vice Premier Rustam Temirgaliyev told me that it won't be a painful process. Within one month, actually he was very confident to say that, that they will definitely manage to move onto the ruble system and pay for salaries to pay the pensions. So I mean, obviously some plan is out there.

YOUNG: What about the Ukrainians, especially Ukrainian officials, who are in Crimea? We hear about troops that are essentially trapped in places and police and other officials. Are they starting to make an exit? What's going on there?

BEDWELL: Well, I visited several Ukrainian military bases a few days ago and have spoken to the commander, Yuli Manchur. They're still inside, and of course they are not planning to leave until probably they will have some orders from above. The best thing they can do, as Manchur said, they must not answer the provocation. They must stay calm, as much as it takes from them, and they're still blocking themselves inside the military headquarters.

YOUNG: So we're hearing more today about sanctions, including against those who were leading the secession movement in Crimea. Are people concerned about that?

BEDWELL: No, no, actually I personally asked the prime minister, Yatsenyuk, this question. I said are you not afraid of - there will be a lot of sanctions on Russia, the biggest partner that you are relying on. But they're very confident that they do have 100 percent the backup. They are confident about the energy, which - the power, which might be cut off here or the water supply because it's quite sort of like - it's a landlocked area, where all the communications come from Ukraine.

But they are very confident that those sanctions, actually which will be imposed, maybe more sanctions will come, they won't affect this area, and they will successfully integrate with Russia pretty soon, within a few months, they say.

YOUNG: And depend on Russia for their - all those utilities you just mentioned.

BEDWELL: Absolutely.

YOUNG: Helena Bedwell in Crimea for Bloomberg News. Thank you so much.

BEDWELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.