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Russian Parliament Backs Crimea Vote, Brushes Off Sanctions Threat

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By Laura Smith-Spark and Alla Eshchenko
MOSCOW (CNN) — Your sanctions don’t scare us.

So said Russia’s parliament Friday, as it gave its defiant support to Crimean lawmakers who want to see their region split from Ukraine and join Russia.

The lawmakers’ unanimous call for a vote on separation prompted howls of outrage Thursday in the United States and Europe — and the threat of sanctions including asset freezes, visa bans and travel bans.

A delegation from the Crimean parliament, which said it would put the decision to a public vote on March 16, headed to Moscow on Friday and got a very different reception.

Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, told the Crimean delegation it would “support and welcome” any decision made by the Crimean people to become a part of Russia.

“We have no rights to leave our people when there’s a threat to them. None of the sanctions will be able to change our attitude,” Matvienko said.

The delegation was greeted with loud applause in the lower house, where the speaker described the decision to hold the referendum as “dictated by the willingness to protect human rights and lives.”

Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has condemned those backing a split.

The Crimean government, which was installed a little more than a week ago after armed, pro-Russian men took over the parliament building in Simferopol, does not recognize the interim government in Kiev.

The authorities in Kiev, in turn, say the Crimean government is illegitimate.

In the past week, Crimea, an autonomous region in southern Ukraine with an ethnic Russian majority and strong cultural ties to Russia, has become the epicenter of a battle for influence between Moscow, Kiev and the West.

Yatsenyuk, speaking Friday in Kiev, said: “I want to warn separatists and other traitors of the Ukrainian state who are trying to work against Ukraine, any of your decisions taken is unlawful, unconstitutional, and nobody in the civilized world is going to recognize the results of the so-called referendum of the so-called Crimean authorities.”

He said he’d requested a second telephone conversation with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Yatsenyuk, who was in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday as European Union talks on sanctions against Russia took place, insisted then that “Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine.”

He said Friday that an agreement made in Brussels to sign an EU trade deal, and the offer of an EU financial aid package worth $15 billion, were the result of historic unity with EU members.

“We are leading Ukraine into the European Union,” he said.

Monitors suggested

U.S. President Barack Obama set out a potential solution to the crisis in Ukraine when he spoke to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Thursday, the White House said.

The proposal would include direct talks between Kiev and Moscow, the withdrawal of Russian forces to their bases, international support for elections due May 25, and the presence of international monitors to “ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, including ethnic Russians.”

Obama also rejected the Crimean lawmakers’ decision to call a referendum, saying: “In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.”

International observers are welcome to witness Crimea’s upcoming referendum on joining the Russian Federation, the delegation of the newly installed Crimean parliament said in Moscow.

Meanwhile, international monitors called in by Kiev will try again Friday to gain access to Crimea, which has been under effective Russian control for several days.

On Thursday, armed men at checkpoints turned back the team from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a regional security bloc.

But members of the OSCE team told CNN’s Matthew Chance, who is traveling with them from Kherson in southern Ukraine toward the Crimean peninsula, that they intend to be more assertive Friday as they seek to get in and assess the situation.

In signs that the pro-Russian Crimean authorities are clamping down on dissent within the peninsula, at least two Ukrainian channels, 1+1 and Channel 5, have been blocked from broadcasting terrestrially. The head of 1+1, Olexander Tkachenko, told CNN that Russian state TV outlet Channel One is now broadcasting on its frequency.

A Bulgarian freelance journalist and his colleague also were assaulted by unidentified masked men while filming in Simferopol, the regional capital. The journalist told CNN he was wrestled to the ground and a gun was put to his head.

The incident was captured on surveillance footage aired on a Ukrainian TV channel, Hromadske TV.

Asset freezes, visa bans

As they seek to put the diplomatic squeeze on Russia to pull back its forces from Crimea and negotiate with Kiev, EU nations announced Thursday they will suspend bilateral talks with Russia on visa matters and have threatened travel bans, asset freezes and cancellation of a planned EU-Russia summit.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French public radio Friday that tougher measures are planned if Moscow doesn’t act to de-escalate the situation.

“Without very prompt results, there will be further measures against Russian officials and companies. Those could be asset freezes, cancellations, visa denials,” he told France Info.

“And if another attempt is made, then we would enter into something completely different — that is to say serious consequences for the relations between Europe and Russia.”

The United States also has taken action. The State Department has imposed a visa ban on Russian and Ukrainian officials and others that it said are responsible for, or complicit in, threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Obama has signed an executive order laying the groundwork for sanctions against individuals and entities responsible for the crisis.

Paralympic plea

The Paralympic Games get under way Friday in the Russian city of Sochi, and Putin is expected to attend the opening ceremony.

Ukrainian Paralympic Committee chief Valeriy Suskevich appealed for peace in his country and said he’d made the same request of Putin at a meeting Thursday night.

“We are staying in order to be remembered, for Ukraine to be remembered as the state which sent a unified team,” he said at a news conference.

Ukraine’s sports minister will not be attending.

Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and Poland are among those who also have said they will stay away. Earlier this week, the White House canceled a presidential delegation to the Paralympic Games.

Crimean threat?

Moscow has denounced the events that led to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster in late February as an illegitimate coup and has refused to recognize the new Ukrainian authorities, putting Russia and Ukraine on a collision course over control of Crimea.

Putin has insisted he has the right to use military force in Ukraine if necessary to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea.

But Ukrainian officials say no threat exists and that Putin is using it as a pretext to control the region.

The peninsula was part of Russia until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954. Ukraine was then part of the Soviet Union. Russia has a major naval base in the port city of Sevastopol, and thousands of troops are stationed there.

A second Russian naval vessel was scuttled Friday morning at the entrance to Lake Donuzlav, an inlet on the western coast of Crimea that is home to a Ukrainian naval base. Viktor Shmihanovsky, vice commander of the base, told CNN that several Ukrainian naval ships are now trapped inside.

Muslim minority fears for safety

Russian speakers make up about 60% of Crimea’s population, but around a quarter are Ukrainian and 12% are Crimean Tatar, a predominately Muslim minority. Neither of the latter two groups would welcome a switch to Russian control.

CNN’s Diana Magnay met with Crimean Tatars in the town of Bakhchisaray as they held an emergency meeting, amid fears for their safety that have reminded some of past oppression under the Soviet Union.

Many spent years in exile — in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, or other Soviet republics — after Josef Stalin deported the Tatars from their homeland for supposedly collaborating with Adolf Hitler.

Of the referendum, one elderly man, Lenur Emirveliyev, said: “It is not legal. We are the original nation of Crimea. Our Khan state was here. Russia left us with no rights.

“We don’t want to be with Russia, we want to be with Ukraine.”

 

CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark wrote this report from London, and CNN’s Alla Eshchenko reported from Moscow. CNN’s Chelsea J. Carter, Ursin Caderas and Tim Schwarz contributed to this report.

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