People in Crimea took to the polls on Sunday for a referendum on breaking away from Ukraine to join Russia that has precipitated a Cold War-style security crisis on Europe’s eastern frontier.
Ukraine’s new government and most of the international community except Russia have said they will not recognise a result expected to be overwhelmingly in favour of immediate secession.
“This is a historic moment, everyone will live happily,” Sergiy Aksyonov, the local pro-Moscow prime minister, told reporters after casting his ballot in the regional capital Simferopol.
“This is a new era,” he said, after a man waving a Ukrainian flag was pushed away by security guards.
“We will celebrate this evening,” Aksyonov said.
Some 1.5 million people are called to vote on the Black Sea peninsula, which is mostly inhabited by ethnic Russians and has been seized by Russian forces over the past month.
Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov called on Crimeans to boycott the ballot, accusing Russia of engineering it as part of an invasion plan.
“The result has been pre-planned by the Kremlin as a formal justification to send in its troops and start a war that will destroy people’s lives and the economic prospects for Crimea,” he said.
AFP reporters saw voters cast their ballots in Simferopol and the naval base of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
“Everything will be easier. I’m only for Russia,” said Russian-born Raisa, a 77-year-old woman with a walking stick who was among the first to vote in Simferopol.
In Bakhchysaray — the centre of Crimea’s native Muslim Tatar community, which is urging a boycott of the referendum — only ethnic Russians were seen coming to vote.
“We have waited years for this moment,” said 71-year-old Ivan Konstantinovich, who raised his hands in victory after voting in the town.
“Everyone will vote for Russia,” he said.
Crimea says foreign observers are monitoring the vote but the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is not because it needs to be invited by a a member state.
OSCE military observers aiming to defuse tensions have been prevented from entering Crimea, which is at the centre of the worst East-West confrontation since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Voters can choose to become part of Russia or retain more autonomy but stay in Ukraine — a vote for the status quo is not an option.
Preliminary results were expected soon after polls close at 8:00pm (1800 GMT) and Russian flags were already being handed out in the streets in Sevastopol.
Preparations to become part of the Russian Federation — a process that could take months — are to begin this week if the people vote for Moscow.
Rehearsals for the big day have included a show by Cossack troops and the slogan “We are in Russia!” beamed onto the government building in Simferopol, leaving no doubt as to the expected outcome.
Pro-Russia authorities and Moscow say the referendum is an example of self-determination like Kosovo’s decision to leave Serbia but Washington says the vote cannot be democratic because it is taking place “under the barrel of a gun”.