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Tension, Violence Build One Day Ahead Of Crimea Vote


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon's away. I'm Jacki Lyden. It's a tense moment in Ukraine. Russia has vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that declared invalid an upcoming referendum on Crimea joining Russia. Crimea will hold the vote on Sunday. Last-bid talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, failed in London yesterday. An also yesterday, Russia's foreign ministry restated that it reserves the right to intervene in Ukraine in order to protect Russian citizens. NPR's Gregory Warner is following events and he joined us earlier this morning. I started by asking him how he would describe the mood in Crimea ahead of tomorrow's vote.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Well, Jacki, I'm in Yalta on the shores of the Black Sea. And you were talking about the tension in Ukraine. There is high tension throughout Ukraine. But here in Yalta, in the tourist town of Yalta, you'd never know it. There's kids rollerblading under the McDonalds arches, people taking ferry rides. But it's also a sign of the isolation here. The media is just sending one message, billboards saying, join Russia. And there's a sense of fatalism, that this is a done deal, this referendum is going to happen and everyone's going with it.

LYDEN: Well, we are hearing reports of pressure and intimidation ahead of tomorrow's vote. Have you heard anything about anti-Russian protesters disappearing or being silenced or local journalists being threatened?

WARNER: Absolutely. That's happening all over. I've talked to a number of people who say that they now, they go to a pro-Ukrainian meeting, they have to use code words and they have to take different routes home. They always call home and sometimes they don't make it. There's been a number of reports of people disappeared, people arrested. The difference between arrested and disappeared is really whether the authorities admit to it or not. And interestingly, yesterday, we were at a very large rally of Crimean Tatars who have come out - again, this is a Muslim minority group - they've come out against the referendum. And they were out in force. As they were stretched out along the road, there were a number of cars coming by honking, going di-doot, do-doot, you know, in support. Now, there were a number of cars honking their antagonism as well. But it felt more like a protest. It felt more like an expression, which has been sorely lacking in Crimea.

LYDEN: Secretary Kerry has described the referendum tomorrow as a backdoor annexation that would be a breach of international law. What do you anticipate will happen once the results are announced?

WARNER: Once the results are announced, and it's fairly expected, according to poll numbers, that people will vote to join Russia. Now, what does that mean to join Russia? Well, apparently, according to the new Crimean prime minister, that means that within the year, Crimea will be part of Russia. How that's going to happen logistically, you know, nobody really knows, because there's a huge number of logistical challenges, but they almost don't matter because it's really a question of what President Putin's going to do.

LYDEN: There have been violent clashes, as you know, Greg, between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk in the last couple of days. What can you tell us about that?

WARNER: If you talk to some people, they will blame pro-Russian provocateurs that are actually coming in from Russia. They say that busloads of thugs are really causing this. Other people dispute that. And this also could be clashes which are inspired simply by Russia's show of force in Crimea. And in Kharkov, last night there were two people shot, apparently outside the office of a far-right group. Look, this is the big fear of this conflict, that it would spread from Crimea. And the Ukrainian interim president is not dampening those fears. He says that he looked at the Russian buildup here in Crimea. He says that Russia is ready to invade Ukraine at any moment. And when I talked to some soldiers on the border there, they said, yes. Soon as our brother in Donetsk or in Kharkov ask us to come, we're going to help them.

LYDEN: That's NPR's Gregory Warner speaking to us from Yalta in Crimea. Thanks very much, Greg.

WARNER: Thanks, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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