Crimea Secession Vote: How, why and what next?

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Crimea Secession Vote: How, why and what next?
Svetlana Kalisetskaya, chairman of polling committee, playfully salutes inside a voting station after completing preparations for Sunday's referendum at a polling station in Perevalne, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Protestors taking Russian flags during a pro Russian rally with Russian state flags at a central square in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Russian forces backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles Saturday took control of a village near the border with Crimea on the eve of a referendum on whether the region should seek annexation by Moscow, Ukrainian officials said. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
A pro-Russian soldier stands close to the main gate of an Ukrainian military base in Perevalne, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A man peers from the back of a military truck driving downtown Simferopol, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Russian soldier is backdropped by trucks that define the limits of the pro-Russian troops staging area in the vicinity of an Ukrainian military base in Perevalne, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukrainian soldiers walk by a pro-Russian soldier in Perevalne, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukrainian soldiers walk as the sun sets in Perevalne, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A girl holds a kitten she is trying to sell in a market in Simferopol, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, left, and United States? U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power interact before an U.N. Security Council meeting on the Ukraine crisis, Saturday, March 15, 2014, at the United Nations headquarters. Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution declaring Sunday's referendum on the future of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula illegal, but its close ally China abstained in a show of Moscow's isolation. Supporters of the U.S.-sponsored resolution knew that Russia would use its veto, but they put the resolution to a vote Saturday morning to show the strength of opposition to Moscow's takeover of Crimea. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Svetlana Kalisetskaya, chairman of polling committee, checks a voting cabin after completing preparations for Sunday's referendum at a polling station in Perevalne, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Russian soldier is back dropped by Russia's flag while manning a machine-gun outside an Ukrainian military base in Perevalne, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
People shout slogans during a pro Russian rally at a central square in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Russian forces backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles Saturday took control of a village near the border with Crimea on the eve of a referendum on whether the region should seek annexation by Moscow, Ukrainian officials said. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
Demonstrators wearing red and two WWII veterans, right, march in support of Kremlin-backed plans for the Ukrainian province of Crimea to break away and merge with Russia, in Moscow, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Large rival marches have taken place in Moscow over Kremlin-backed plans for Ukraine?s province of Crimea to break away and merge with Russia. The marchers belong to a group calling itself the ?Essence of Time,? which professes to militate in the interests of social progress in Russia and protect the interests of Russians. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
A man holds a child under Crimean flags as pro-Russian people attend a rally in Lenin Square, in Simferopol, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Russian soldier is silhouetted by the sunset sky as he mans a machine gun outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalne, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukraine's U.N. Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev speaks during an U.N. Security Council meeting on the Ukraine crisis, Saturday, March 15, 2014, at the United Nations headquarters. Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution declaring Sunday's referendum on the future of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula illegal, but its close ally China abstained in a show of Moscow's isolation. Supporters of the U.S.-sponsored resolution knew that Russia would use its veto, but they put the resolution to a vote Saturday morning to show the strength of opposition to Moscow's takeover of Crimea. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
People shout slogans during a pro Russian rally at a central square in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Russian forces backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles Saturday took control of a village near the border with Crimea on the eve of a referendum on whether the region should seek annexation by Moscow, Ukrainian officials said. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
A demonstrator carries Russian and Ukrainian flags during a march to oppose president Vladimir Putin's policies in Ukraine, in Moscow, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Large rival marches have taken place in Moscow over Kremlin-backed plans for Ukraine?s province of Crimea to break away and merge with Russia. More than 10,000 people turned out Saturday for a rally in the center of the city held to oppose what many demonstrators described as Russia?s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula. In a nearby location, a similar sized crowd voiced its support for Crimea?s ethnic Russian majority, who Moscow insists is at threat from an aggressively nationalist leadership now running Ukraine. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Members of the new Crimean army attend a morning briefing in Lenin Square, in Simferopol, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Ukrainian demonstrator wearing a mask attends a rally, in Simferopol, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Ukrainian demonstrator attends a rally, back dropped by Ukraine's nation flag, in Simferopol, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
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SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) - The Ukrainian region of Crimea votes Sunday in a hastily organized referendum to break away and join Russia, in defiance of broad condemnation from the international community, which has described the process as illegitimate.

Moscow-backed politicians in Crimea, a territory of 2 million people, argue the move will ensure the local population protection from radical nationalism that they say surged after President Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee Ukraine. No immediate proof of specific threats has been produced, however, and the leadership in Kiev describes what is happening in Crimea as a crude land grab.

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THE ROAD TO REFERENDUM

Ukraine's territorial uncertainty has its roots in the protests that led to the downfall of Yanukovych, who enjoyed support from the Kremlin and had his base of support in the mainly ethnic Russian-populated southeast. The demonstrations began in November when Yanukovych abruptly refused to sign a long-anticipated political association and free trade agreement with the European Union, opting instead for closer ties with Russia.

Weeks of peaceful rallies were punctured by bursts of violence, which culminated with the death of dozens of protesters in late February.

A peace deal between the government and opposition was overseen by EU diplomats, but that arrangement was overtaken within days when protesters took control of the capital, Kiev, and police abandoned posts. The parliament voted to remove the president from power and soon appointed a replacement.

An early proposal in the new parliament that would have seen the status of the Russian language downgraded was greeted with alarm in some parts of the country. Russia has also loudly expressed indignation over what it claims is the inexorable rise of radical nationalist groups, a concern that critics suggest is an exercise in disingenuousness.

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CAMPAIGN

The referendum ballot will feature two questions: One, to grant Crimea greater autonomy within Ukraine. The other, which is widely expected to secure the bulk of support, envisions annexation by Russia.

What little actual campaigning there's been in Crimea has taken place under the often menacing gaze of local militia forces, as well as heavily armed troops under apparent command from Moscow. In the face of overwhelming evidence, Russia denies it has deployed any troops.

The pro-annexation message has been crude but effective, and is aimed at instilling alarm over the new Ukrainian government's purported design to marginalize the country's ethnic Russian population.

One billboard showed two maps of Crimea: one emblazoned in the tricolor of the Russian flag. The other shows it against a crimson background and stamped with a swastika.

Supporters of the referendum have argued it is little different from the independence vote to take place in Scotland later this year. But British officials argue the latter vote has been two years in the waiting and is being held in a climate of free discussion. Crimeans have had less than two weeks to ponder on their referendum and public debate has been notable for its absence.

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THE FUTURE

Crimean authorities say if Ukrainian soldiers resolutely occupying their garrisons don't surrender after the election, they will be considered "illegal."

On the diplomatic front, Russia looks ever more isolated as it faces the prospect of sanctions from Western nations and the ambivalence of China.

Leaders of the mainly Muslim Crimean Tatar minority, who make up more than one-tenth of the region's population, insist they want to remain part of Ukraine and worry about what fate awaits them in a country they have no desire to join.

Inside Russia, President Vladimir Putin has fared well from his hard-line stance on Crimea and enjoyed a bump in popularity ratings. Still, if public criticism of his policies is rare, it's in no small part because the already embattled independent media has faced a renewed onslaught of state-led intimidation.

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REMAINDER OF UKRAINE

Once Crimea's pro-Russian leadership seals some vague semblance of legitimacy through the referendum, attention will likely swing to eastern Ukraine, another heavily Russian-populated area in which the central government is struggling to stamp its authority. The past few days have seen ugly confrontations between pro-Russians and pro-Ukrainians, and anxieties are stirring about the potential for that situation to worsen.

A national presidential election set for May 25 is seen by the interim authorities as an opportunity to restore democratic processes in a country currently run by an interim post-revolutionary Cabinet. Perceptions of an uncertain security situation could undermine confidence in what that vote produces, however.
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