Crimea Fate Seems Clear on Eve of Referendum

Image: A man holds Russian and Crimean flags during a rally

A man holds Russian and Crimean flags during a rally in front of Crimean flags at Lenin Square in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine, 15 March 2014. The Moscow-leaning Crimea region is due to hold a referendum on 16 March on whether to break away from Ukraine and join Russia, with observers fearing worsening violence on the peninsula ahead of the vote. Hopes for a diplomatic solution to the crisis faded on 14 March after six-hour talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov ended with 'no common vision', as Lavrov put it. YURI KOCHETKOV / EPA

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — On the eve of a vote that will determine the future of Crimea, the semi-autonomous peninsula beneath mainland Ukraine, the capital city seems already to have sworn allegiance to Russia.

Sunday, Crimea will hold a controversial referendum on its status as a part of Ukraine. Voters will be asked if they want Crimea to be subject to Russia instead.

But in downtown Simferopol Friday, the vote seemed to be a fait accompli. A patchwork of pro-Russia groups roamed freely. Men in matching green camouflage uniforms stood outside the parliament building, unarmed but arranged in a tight cordon around the entrance.

Nearby, across the small square from parliament, at a row of convention-style tents, militia members stopped for coffee and sandwiches of thick white bread and salami. Pensioners and other passers by gathered beneath the flag of a group called United Russia, where they put money in donation jars.

Ludmilla Dmitriyenko, a retired psychologist, said she would vote to embrace Russia.

"We're going back and we're never living with the stepmother again," she said, referring to Ukraine.

Here in Simferopol, where pro-Russian sentiment is deeply felt, residents seem intent to answer the events in Kiev with their own revolution.

Engel: Street Art Shows the Divide in Crimea 0:39
Fast change

The counter-revolution in Crimea has been swift and mysterious. Only five days after protesters in Kiev toppled Ukraine's government, armed men seized the parliament building in Crimea. Lawmakers later that day announced the referendum.

The next day, more gunmen arrived, surrounding the airport at Simferopol and at the southern port city of Sevastopol. It was not clear who the gunmen were, though military vehicles with Russian license plates criss-crossed the peninsula.

"This was the place to create a lot of leverage over Kiev," Andrew S. Weiss, the Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment, and an NBC News analyst, said of Russia during a telephone interview Friday.

While it's unclear how far Russia intends to extend its influence inside Ukraine, Weiss said the Kremlin envisions a "loose" and "messy" Ukraine, with Crimea federalized under Russian control.

"The Russians, I think, calculated that the world would have to deal with it and accept a new normal," Weiss said.

Crimeans Prepare for Ukraine Cessation Vote 2:54
Anxiety and a weakened opposition

The particulars of a new normal won't be clear until after Sunday's vote. In the meantime, even among Russia's proponents here in Crimea, there is uncertainty.

Not far from parliament on Friday afternoon, outside a local bank along Rosa Luxemburg street in Simferopol, about twenty people waited to draw money from an ATM machine.

Since the arrival of pro-Russia forces two weeks earlier, the main bank here, PrivatBank, has limited withdrawal amounts to 500 Ukrainian Hryvnia a day, people said.

"We've just got to stick it out. It's going to get better," one man said. He declined to give his name. Five hundred Hryvnia is roughly 52 dollars.

"Unfortunately a lot of people that don't support Russia are afraid of going out and expressing their opinion openly."

Among Simferopol's weakened opposition, questions about the future are also vexing.

Later Friday, along a busy highway leading out of town, several hundred people gathered for a march against the referendum.

Afraid of confronting militias in the city center, demonstrators — many of them university students — walked the highway shoulder and waived Ukrainian flags at passing cars.

"Unfortunately a lot of people that don't support Russia are afraid of going out and expressing their opinion openly," a demonstrator said.

The demonstrator, Maxim Kornilov, 29, works for a pro-U.S. organization that he said receives funding from the American embassy in Kiev.

"There is no democracy for people in Russia," Kornilov said.

Kornilov called the results of Sunday's vote "predictable." He vowed to leave Simferopol after the weekend, but he doesn't yet know where he'll settle.

In the meantime, he said, he would stay with a friend in Turkey.