Crimea sets date for autonomy vote amid gunmen, anti-Kiev protests

As armed men occupied the building and anti-Maidan protesters rallied outside, the parliament of the pro-Russia Ukrainian region went ahead with plans to push for greater independence from Kiev.

Darko Vojinovic/AP
Pro-Russian demonstrators march with a huge Russian flag during a protest in front of a local government building in Simferopol, Ukraine, on Thursday.

Even as unidentified gunmen occupied two regional government buildings in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, the Ukrainian region's parliament held an emergency session to dismiss its prime minister and set a date for a referendum on greater autonomy from Kiev for the increasingly separatist minded state.

The Crimean parliament approved a no-confidence vote for regional Prime Minister Anatoly Mogilev’s government and replaced him with Sergey Aksyonov of Crimea's Russian Unity party. The referendum was set for May 25, the same day as the presidential elections, and would ask voters to agree or disagree to a statement about whether or not the autonomous region has “state independence and is part of Ukraine.”

But while the parliament provided the region's political action today, most of the drama came from the unknown armed men inside the same building. The group seized it in the early morning, along with the regional cabinet of ministers building, and hoisted Russian flags.

It was not clear who the armed men were who occupyied the building. The former governor of the region, Serhiy Kunitsyn, suggested that the group could be made up of former members of the government riot police, known as Berkut, who were involved in the deadly clashes with demonstrators in Kiev last week. The new interior minister in Kiev, Arsen Avakov, disbanded the units earlier this week, but Sevastopol’s new mayor, Aleksey Chali, a Russian citizen, said the city's Berkut units would remain in place and continue to be paid from the city's budget.

Crimean anger

Outside, several hundred demonstrators gathered, chanting "Russia!" and "Crimea is Russia." Some protesters said they hoped Russia would help the ethnic Russian population in Crimea from being overrun by the "fascist" nationalists who were ruling in Kiev.

"In Maidan, those bandits have guns and weapons, and they took all of our government's buildings by force, so why shouldn't our guys?" says Natalia Morosova, a pensioner in Simferopol, who chanted "Berkut" and "Russia" outside the parliament building.

The protesters' sentiments are broadly held in the Crimean peninsula, where the majority of the country's ethnic Russian live. Sevastopol is the home base of Russia's Black Sea Naval Fleet. Its residents, while Ukrainian citizens, overwhelmingly have declared their desire to become part of Russia in demonstrations in front of the city's administrative buildings – albeit ones much smaller and less impassioned than those on the Maidan in Kiev over the past several months.

On Wednesday, clashes erupted outside the parliament as pro-Russia demonstrators fought with groups of ethnic Crimean Tatars, who represent about 12 percent of the peninsula’s population. As such, unity between Crimea and the Western-leaning interim government in Kiev seems increasingly unlikely.

The decision to hold a referendum in Crimea deepened the challenge facing the new, central government in Kiev – which approved Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister today – as it tried desperately to avoid letting the country's divisions split the nation in half. In the east and south, such as here in the Crimea, many Ukrainians feel the protests that have gripped Kiev for three months has left them disenfranchised.

"We are Russians, and they aren't taking into account our needs to protect our language and culture," says Dima Sobalev, a construction worker who had come to see the demonstrators in the center of Simferopol, the capital of the peninsula. "Nobody supported Yanukovych. But we don't support this illegal government and these protesters on Maidan who are forming a government without us and outside of the law."

Yanukovych reappears

In another surprising development, Ukraine's fugitive impeached president reemerged via a statement released on a Russian news service, Itar-Tass, in which he declared he was still the legitimate leader of the country. Viktor Yanukovych said he had fled to Russia, which had agreed to protect him from an "armed insurgency" in his country.

Mr. Yanukovych has been not been seen since Feb. 22, when it is believed he left Kiev and abandoned his mansion outside of the capital. A manhunt ensued, with only scattered clues as to his whereabouts leaking out throughout the week. His announcement on Thursday said he would hold a press conference in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city near the Ukrainian border.

With Yanukovych on the run, Moscow has refused to acknowledge the government in Kiev, which finished appointing a new cabinet. With separatist sentiments building in Ukraine’s southern peninsula, tensions between Kiev and Moscow have reached new heights.

For his part, Mr. Aksyonov, Crimea's new prime minister, said Yanukovych is Ukraine's rightful leader. "We consider the legitimate president to be Viktor Fyodorovich Yanukovych and we will follow his directions,” Aksyonov said after being sworn in, RIA Novosti reported.

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