Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Crimea would declare itself independent if voters approve move to join Russia

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SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine -- As the campaign increased for tension-filled Crimea to split off from Ukraine in a weekend referendum and join Russia, the region's parliament said Tuesday if voters approve the move it would first declare itself an independent state, a manoeuvre that could de-escalate the standoff between Moscow and the West.

The move would give Moscow the option of saying there is no need for Crimea to become part of Russia while keeping it firmly within its sphere of influence.

The dispute between Moscow and the West over Crimea is one of the most severe geopolitical crises in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Russian forces have secured control over the peninsula, but Ukraine's government and western nations have denounced the referendum as illegitimate and strongly warned Russia against trying to annex Crimea.

Backers of voting to split off from Ukraine in Sunday's referendum say becoming part of Russia would return the Black Sea peninsula to its rightful home. Billboards around the regional capital proclaimed "Together with Russia" and street vendors were selling Russian flags to passing motorists.

But Russia's absorbing Crimea would only worsen tensions with the West, and the parliament declaration could put the bid on hold, depending on the outcome of Russian President Vladimir Putin's bargaining with the West.

In Sunday's referendum, the public will be given two options: becoming part of Russia, or remaining in Ukraine with broader powers.

Crimea, where Russia maintains its Black Sea Fleet base, became the epicentre of tensions in Ukraine after former president Viktor Yanukovych fled last month in the wake of months of protests and outbreaks of bloodshed.

Kyiv-based political analyst Vadim Karasyov said the Crimean parliament's move is "a message to the West that there is no talk about Russia incorporating Crimea."

"It's a tranquillizer for everybody -- for the West and for many in Ukraine who are panicking," he said.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 12, 2014 A11

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