SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Exit polling showed Crimeans voted overwhelmingly Sunday in favor of a referendum to join Russia, indicating 93% voted in favor of the move.
Ethnic Russians braved the rainy weather and were out in force, backing a breakaway from Ukraine, while many foes of the plan refused to participate in an election clouded by the presence of Russian guns.
Russian state television had warned that pro-Russian defense forces, which had flooded the Crimean peninsula since the beginning of the month, were on high alert to prevent "provocations" from pro-Ukrainian forces. However, not a single armed guard was seen in the vicinity of Polling Station No. 08086, at a gymnasium on Simferopol's Kiev Street.
"Of course I voted for joining Russia, I was born in Russia," said Raisa Dragunova, a pensioner in her 70s who voted there, tearing up as she spoke. "The referendum wasn't a surprise at all. I was so happy."
Ukraine's new prime minister insisted again Sunday that neither Ukraine nor the West will recognize the referendum, which it says is being conducted at gunpoint.
"Now, on the territory of the autonomous republic of Crimea under the stage direction of the Russian Federation, a circus performance is underway: the so-called referendum," Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a government meeting. "Also taking part in the performance are 21,000 Russian troops, who with their guns are trying to prove the legality of the referendum."
Crimea's parliament refused to recognize the new Ukrainian government in Kiev and appointed pro-Russian businessman Sergei Aksyonov as Crimea's prime minister. The parliament called for the snap referendum earlier this month, following violent clashes between Russians on one side and Ukrainians and some ethnic Tatars on the other.
Residents of Crimea, up to 60% of whom are Russian, were given a choice of either joining Russia or opting for more autonomy from Ukraine under the 1992 constitution. The status quo, in which Crimea is a semi-autonomous region of Ukraine, was not an option.
Russia's pro-Kremlin parliament has welcomed the referendum and pledged to facilitate Crimea joining Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who authorized sending Russian troops to Ukraine on March 1, has insisted that Russia is only protecting Russians in Ukraine and would deploy armed forces only if necessary.
Russian Crimeans who supported joining Russia were out in force Sunday.
"I'm for Russia. To be honest, I've waited for this for 20 years," said Eduard Kutalitov, 38, a Russian factory worker. "I am a native of Simferopol, and I identify with Russia."
Kutalitov said he believed that troops were sent to maintain law and order, but he hasn't seen any disorder from pro-Ukrainian forces. "It's quiet here, there's not going to be any war."
Some who opposed Crimea joining Russia did not vote because they said the referendum didn't give them any option.
"There's no choice to vote against joining the KGB-run government," said Nikolay Vasilyevich, a Ukrainian professor in Simferopol. "How can you vote with Russian troops around? Crimea will never join Russia, it will lead to war."
No voting irregularities were registered as of Sunday morning, according to local Crimean television, citing election officials. But a hack attack on Crimea's official referendum website was reported by the Russian state-controlled RIA Novosti news agency.
Russia said in February the vote to separate Crimea from Ukraine is necessary because of the "unconstitutional armed coup staged in Kiev by radical nationalists." That was when Russia backed former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the Ukrainian capital amid violence and massive popular protests.
Ukraine's new government in Kiev has said Russia has invaded Ukraine by sending up to 22,000 troops to Crimea, according to Ukraine's Foreign Ministry. Kiev has refused to recognize the Crimean referendum, with Ukraine's parliament on Saturday voting to disband the Crimean parliament.
At the U.N. Security Council on Saturday, every member but Russia and China backed a motion declaring the referendum illegal. Russia vetoed the motion, while Beijing abstained.
Since Crimea was made part of Ukraine in 1954, tensions in the region have risen periodically over its separation from Russia.
Still, while the majority living in Crimea are ethnically Russian, of which many support the vote, the Crimean Tatars, a minority Muslim community, say the economic and political future of their region is being destroyed by Putin. They argue Crimea will be unable to stand on its own thereafter and will become either an isolated Russian province or an unrecognized breakaway state.
"This (the referendum) is an opportunity for Putin to boost his ratings," said Akhtem Seytabla, a popular actor regarded here as a Tatar community spokesman. "The only benefit (for Russia) is the patriotic fervor that draws attention away from Russia's social problems."
And there were signs that Moscow may be prepared to claim more Ukrainian territory in order to assure the viability of Crimea. On Saturday, dozens of Russian soldiers landed in the Kherson region, a former part of Crimea located just to the north of peninsula.
"Ukraine reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia," said the Ukrainian foreign ministry in a statement issued in response to the incursion. The country's defense ministry said its troops had repelled the Russian attack, while Russian media denied involvement, claiming that Crimean forces had foiled an attempt to sabotage the region's gas supplies.
Amid heightened military tension, calls for a general military mobilization grew in Kiev. The new government has announced the formation of a new national guard, which is slated to include many former protesters. Some political parties are calling for neighborhood defense associations, formed during months of protests here, to be armed.
"If the Russian jackboots stomp on our land, we will do our best to make them pay dearly for what they have done," read a proclamation issued late last week by Pravy Sektor, a far right group that has become increasingly influential in the aftermath of Yanukovych's overthrow by protesters. The statement referred to any attack on mainland Ukraine by Russia.
"We cannot let the enemy wage a Blitzkrieg war in Ukraine," it added.
Many here, including the new Ukrainian government, are concerned that Russia has been whipping up unrest in the country's east to create a pretext for a full-scale invasion of that region.
Violence in the southeastern city of Donetsk and the eastern city of Kharkiv has left several people dead in recent days. Pro-Russian protests were again reported on Saturday in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city.
However, there is significant support in Ukraine's south and east for Russian involvement in the region, politicians in Kiev concede.
"The violence is a good opportunity for them to see for themselves what the Russia they want to live in is really like," said Sergei Zamalunkhin, a leader of a new pro-Kiev Russian speaking party, at a meeting in the Ukrainian capital.
Still, he added: "Many see modern Ukraine as a place that never gave them anything. We need to change their lives now – to give them a job."
McPhedran reported from Kiev. Contributing: Associated Press