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On Eve Of Historic Crimea Vote, A Final Noisy Day Of Protests

Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have turned out for a "peace march" in support of Ukraine in Moscow on March 15.
Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have turned out for a "peace march" in support of Ukraine in Moscow on March 15.
On the eve of a referendum in which Crimean voters are all but certain to choose to separate the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine and bring it back under Russian control, a number of protests were held in both Moscow and Ukraine.

On the eve of a controversial referendum on Crimea severing ties with Ukraine, authorities in the Black Sea peninsula tried to project an air of calm. Nearly everywhere else, however, the mood was angry, defiant, and loud.

In the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, mourners marched in memory of the "heavenly hundred," the more than 80 people killed as the Euromaidan pro-democracy protests reached their deadly peak last month.

Further east, in the pro-Russia stronghold of Donetsk, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside local security headquarters, smashing windows and attempting to storm the building to protest the replacement of local officials with new authorities hand-picked by Kyiv's new pro-Western government.

But the noisiest protests, surprisingly, came even further east -- in Moscow, where a massive crowd of as many as 50,000 demonstrators gathered to voice their solidarity with Ukraine over Vladimir Putin's calculated takeover of the Crimean peninsula.

In size and passion, the Moscow protest harkened back to the 2012 demonstrations against Putin's return to the presidential post. Speaking angrily into a microphone at the front of the boisterous crowds, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov called on Russians to "rally against Putin's madness."

"We should say no to war!" he said. "We should say enough of idiocy! We should say Russia and Ukraine without Putin! Russia and Ukraine without Putin!"

The rally dramatically outsized a simultaneous pro-Kremlin Moscow protest, which drew an estimated 15,000 demonstrators supporting Russia's moves to bring Crimea back under Moscow's control.

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Thousands March In Moscow Against War With Ukraine
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The Moscow "peace march," as it was billed, appeared to allow many Russians, however briefly, to tap into the revolutionary heat that has gripped their western neighbor for months. Anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny, currently under house arrest, communicated on Twitter that he was moved "to tears" by the rally.

Many Ukrainians were similarly moved, expressing surprise and appreciation for the Russian street's show of support at a time when Kremlin strategists have sought to pit one side against the other.
Small-scale protests were held throughout Crimea, both in favor and against the referendum on March 16, which gives voters a choice between eventual reintegration with Moscow or a return to its independent status under Ukraine's short-lived 1992 constitution.

The referendum is widely expected to approve Crimea's withdrawal from Ukraine and unification with the Russian Federation, in what would be the most dramatic territorial annexation since the end of the Cold War -- and has drawn eerie comparisons to the German Anschluss 76 years ago.

Kyiv Dissolves Crimean Assembly

Ukraine's interim government has already rejected the referendum as illegal. On March 15, lawmakers in the Verkhovna Rada, the country's parliament, voted overwhelmingly to dissolve the Crimean Supreme Council, which recently installed pro-Russian Sergei Aksyonov, as prime minister.

The Kyiv vote is bound to have little impact in Crimea, which remains under Russia-backed, if not entirely Russian, military protection by some 20,000 "self-defense" forces.

Ukrainian officials maintain that Russian soldiers have already entered Crimea and are using the pretext of military exercises to build up a sizable troop presence along Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern flank, a claim Russia denies.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said on March 15 that its forces had repelled an attempt by Russian troops to enter a strip of Ukrainian land adjacent to Crimea, fuelling the likelihood of clashes if the referendum is successful. Later reports suggested that Russian forces had, in fact, taken the strip of land.

Aksyonov has said he expects 80 percent of the peninsula's voters, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians, to support Russian reintegration.

Keen to conduct a calm and orderly vote, he has imposed restrictions on journalists covering the poll, and has even acknowledged that a number of activists and reporters, who had earlier been reported as abducted, had been placed in preemptive detention to avoid "subversive activities" on March 16.

Organizers of the referendum say a return to the Russian fold will herald a better standard of living and protection from "fascist" forces looking to oppress Ukraine's ethnic Russians.

But opposition remains strong among Crimea's Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar populations, who fear an antiminority backlash should the change take place.

Small anti-Russia demonstrations have been held in Crimea almost daily in the run-up to the referendum. One woman, part of a human chain of protesters lining the main road into Simferopol, spoke in bleak but defiant terms about Crimea's choices.

"At the end of the day, we should have some dignity," she said. "Yes, Ukraine is a weak country. Yes, we're pretty poor. It's a corrupt country. But we should have a sense of dignity. When all is said and done, this is our country. If it's bad, we're bad too. Even if things are bad for us at home, we're not going to go to our rich neighbor and live there, right?"

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report

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