Putin defends Crimean referendum legitimacy to EU leaders as Ukraine’s southeast rallies

Pro-Russian demonstrators attend a rally in Donetsk March 9, 2014.

Crimea’s upcoming referendum will reflect the legitimate interests of its people, Russian President Vladimir Putin told two EU leaders over the phone. Inspired by Crimea’s actions, eastern Ukraine is also protesting the coup-imposed government in Kiev.

Putin on Sunday had a top-level conversation on the situation in Ukraine with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, according to a statement issued by the Kremlin press service.

The Russian president “underlined in particular that the steps taken by Crimea’s legitimate authorities are based on international law and aimed at guaranteeing the legitimate interests of the peninsula’s population,” the statement said.

The “lack of any action” on part of the current Kiev authorities with regard to ultra-nationalists and radical forces acting in Ukraine has particularly been noted by Putin.

While Putin reminded that the power in Kiev was seized in an unconstitutional armed coup, Merkel stressed that, according to Europe’s view, the Crimean referendum violates the Ukrainian constitution and international law.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (L-R) sit to watch a fragment of the ballet “Ruslan and Lyudmila” during the G20 Summit in Peterhof near St. Petersburg September 6, 2013.

The German Chancellor also “pointed out the urgency of finally coming to a substantial result” on the issue of forming the “international contact group” on Ukraine, Reuters reported.

Despite the difference of opinions, the sides have agreed that the de-escalation of tension in Ukraine is in everyone’s interest, the Kremlin statement notes.

Meanwhile, the coup-imposed Kiev government has stepped up pressure on Crimea, blocking the electronic system of the region’s treasury, freezing the autonomy’s accounts, and ramping up the presence of border police on the autonomy’s borders.

According to Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliyev, Kiev’s recent moves will not affect state payments, including pensions, and Crimean authorities are now opening accounts in Russian banks instead of relying on the frozen ones.

Temirgaliev also told Interfax that authorities are expecting that some additional railway traffic to and from Russia will be ferried over the Kerch Strait. A bridge connecting Kerch and Russia’s Krasnodar Region is also being built “at a rapid pace,” he said.

The future status of the region has yet to be decided by its people; the All-Crimean referendum will take place on March 16.

According to the speaker of the Supreme Council of Crimea, Vladimir Konstantinov, Crimea would prefer to keep its status of autonomous parliamentary republic in the case of a favorable outcome of the referendum.

Southeastern Ukraine rallies against govt

On Sunday, thousands of anti-Maidan demonstrators rallying in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk blocked and occupied the regional administration building, hoisting a Russian flag on top. The protesters have demanded that Mikhail Bolotskikh, the region’s head, step down. Bolotskikh was appointed by the self-proclaimed Kiev authorities.

Some 3,000 people took part in the rally and about 1,000 broke inside the building, according to Itar-Tass and local media reports. Twitter users claimed that Bolotskikh has already signed his resignation and escaped the city center in a car through a “disgrace corridor” formed by the protesters.

Later on Sunday, the fugitive official declared that he signed the document under pressure and that he is still carrying out his duties.

Before the takeover, pro-Russian demonstrators reportedly clashed with Euromaidan activists demonstrating near a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, whose 200th birthday was celebrated on Sunday.

Shevchenko’s anniversary attracted rallies in support of Ukraine’s unity all across the country. One of the largest demonstrations took place in Kharkov, where some 10,000 people marched with a huge 100-meter Ukrainian flag and chanted, “No to war!”

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