SIMFEROPOL (Ukraine): Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to break away from Ukraine and join Russia in a referendum on Sunday that has alarmed the former Soviet republic and triggered the worst crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War.

According to results of an exit poll announced first on Russian media, 93 per cent of voters backed a union with Moscow, 60 years after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, an ethnic Ukrainian, gifted Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic on an apparent whim.

The outcome of Sunday’s vote was never in doubt, although the main organiser said the figure was premature and that preliminary results would be announced later.

Thousands of people filled Lenin Square in the centre of Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, and waved Crimean and Russian flags in a festive celebration of what most locals wanted.

“We cannot be any worse off than we are now,” said Lyudmila Sergeyevna, a 64-year-old who was born in Simferopol and has lived on the peninsula all her life.

“I am Ukrainian through and through, but I voted for Russia. I have a son, daughter and two grandsons living with me in a small apartment. I just hope things are going to be better now.”

The majority of Crimea’s 1.5 million electorate, like Sergeyevna, support becoming part of Russia, citing expectations of economic growth and the prospect of joining a country capable of asserting itself on the world stage.

But others saw the referendum as nothing more than a geopolitical land grab by the Kremlin which is seeking to exploit Ukraine’s relative economic and military weakness as it moves towards the European mainstream and away from Russia.

Thousands of Russian troops have taken control of the Black Sea peninsula, and Crimea’s pro-Russian leaders ensured the vote was tilted in Moscow’s favour.

That, along with an ethnic Russian majority, resulted in a comfortable “Yes” vote to leave Ukraine, a move expected to lead to US and European sanctions as early as Monday against those seen as responsible for the takeover of Crimea.

When Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, whose election is not recognised by Ukrainian authorities in Kiev, cast his ballot, a man tried to unfurl a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag next to him, but people in the crowd prevented the show of dissent.

Voters had two options to choose from — but both implied Russian control of the peninsula.

Ukraine’s acting president Oleksander Turchinov late on Saturday called on people in Crimea to boycott the “pseudo-referendum”, yet with two hours of polling still to go, turnout was officially 73.4 per cent. Turchinov said: “Its result has already been written in the Kremlin, which needs some grounds to officially put troops on our land and start a war which will destroy people’s lives and the economic prospects of Crimea.”

Most ethnic Tatars, Sunni Muslims of Turkic origin who make up 12 per cent of Crimea’s population, boycotted the referendum, despite promises by the authorities to give them financial aid and proper land rights.

Shevkaye Assanova, a Crimean Tatar in her 40s, said she would not recognise the outcome. “This is my land. This is the land of my ancestors. Who asked me if I want it or not? Who asked me?

“For the rest of my life I will be cursing those who brought these people here. I don’t recognise this at all. I curse all of them.”—Reuters

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