Ex-Ukraine minister says Crimea nears 'point of no return'

18/03/2014

NATO and the European Union say that the vote in Crimea will not be recognised.

By Southeast European Times -- 18/04/14

photo

A man is searched as armed militiamen secure the area near the Crimean parliament building in central Simferopol on Monday (March 17th). [AFP]

Global organisations moved this week to sanction Russia and Ukraine's autonomous republic of Crimea following a weekend vote that led Crimea to apply to join the Russian Federation.

Meanwhile, experts began raising concerns for what is being seen as the beginning of a humanitarian crisis for ethnic Tatars and other Ukrainians who are fleeing Crimea because they do not want to be assimilated into Russia.

"There are ethnic Crimea Tatars and ethnic Crimeans who are very fearful about what may happen to them, post-referendum," Christopher Miller, editor of the Kyiv Post, told SETimes, reporters and analysts on Monday on a conference call organised by the global NGO Wilson Centre.

"They are very worried," said Miller, who added that the mood in Ukraine is tense. "They have been harassed and intimidated extensively over the last couple of weeks. The sense that I'm getting is that [they] don't want to be under Russian rule. Some of them began leaving for western Ukraine last week."

NATO issued a statement on Monday (March 17th) calling the referendum "illegal and illegitimate."

"This was demonstrated by the rushed nature of the poll under conditions of military intervention and the restrictions on, and the manipulation of, the media, which precluded any possibility of free debate and deliberation and deprived the vote of any credibility," NATO said in the statement.

"We urge the Russian Federation to de-escalate the situation, including by ceasing all military activities against Ukraine."

Oleksandr Chalyi, former first deputy minister for foreign affairs of Ukraine, told SETimes and other reporters on the conference call that this week is a serious time for Ukraine and the region. A key factor, he said, will be Russian President Vladimir Putin's expected address to the Russian Parliament.

A message by Putin that signals Moscow is interested in discussion and peaceful negotiation would be a welcome sign, Chalyi said. But if Moscow moves to annex Crimea, tensions could devolve to the point of open conflict between Ukrainians and Russians.

"We may be near the point of no return," Chalyi said.

On Monday, Crimea's parliament unilaterally declared Ukrainian state property on the peninsula to be nationalised and property of what it calls the Crimean Republic and applied for membership in the Russian Federation. It declared that the Russian ruble will be official currency and said it would accept millions in Russian funding for a new central bank.

The European Union issued travel bans and froze the assets against 21 officials from Ukraine and Russia, and the US issued sanctions against seven Russian officials.

The EU noted that the vote was held "in the visible presence of armed soldiers under conditions of intimidation of civic activities and journalists, blacking out of Ukrainian television channels and obstruction of civilian traffic in and out of Crimea."

Ukraine has been in turmoil ever since a government crackdown against pro-western rallies in Kiev turned violent, sparking widespread outrage and prompting deposed President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia rather than face charges for the deaths of protesters.

Moscow refused to recognise the new pro-western government in Kiev and supported pro-Russian paramilitaries who surrounded military bases in the days before the referendum, and also launched intimidating military manoeuvres off the Ukrainian coast.

Large numbers of Russian troops continue to be massed near the Ukrainian border.

Russia put more pressure on Ukraine on Monday by urging Kiev's parliament to draft a new constitution that gave more power to its regions, and also for Russian to be named an official state language in addition to Ukrainian.

Ukraine's new government rejected the proposals and said it "looks like an ultimatum."

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NATO said it would fully support the territorial integrity of Ukraine and urged Russia to seek a political solution.

"We therefore urge the Russian Federation not to take any steps to annex Crimea, which would be a clear violation of the United Nations charter," NATO said in a statement.

The EU urged Russia to withdraw its forces back to levels before the crisis began and begin direct discussions with Ukraine to find a peaceful, negotiated solution. The EU also asked for OSCE monitors to be deployed throughout the region.

How should NATO and the EU help resolve the Ukraine crisis in a peaceful manner? Add your thoughts in the space below.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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