Russian parliament backs Crimea vote, brushes off sanctions threat

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Scenes from Kiev's Independence Square on March 6, 2014.

Scenes from Kiev's Independence Square on March 6, 2014.

Scenes from Kiev’s Independence Square on March 6, 2014.

By Laura Smith-Spark and Alla Eshchenko

MOSCOW (CNN) — Your sanctions don’t scare us.

So said Russia’s parliament Friday as it gave its defiant support to Crimean lawmakers who want to see their region split from Ukraine and join Russia.

The lawmakers’ unanimous call for a vote on separation prompted howls of outrage Thursday in the United States and Europe — and the threat of sanctions, including asset freezes, visa bans and travel bans.

The delegation from the Crimean parliament, which said it would put the decision to a public vote on March 16, headed to Moscow on Friday and got a very different reaction.

Valentina Matvienko, speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, told the Crimean delegation it would “support and welcome” any decision made by the Crimean people to become a part of Russia.

“We have no rights to leave our people when there’s a threat to them. None of the sanctions will be able to change our attitude,” Matvienko said.

The delegation was greeted with loud applause in the lower house, where the speaker described the decision to hold the referendum as “dictated by the willingness to protect human rights and lives.”

Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk condemned talk of a split amid the presence of thousands of Russian troops in Crimea.

“I want to warn separatists and other traitors of the Ukrainian state who are trying to work against Ukraine, any of your decisions taken is unlawful, unconstitutional, and nobody in the civilized world is going to recognize the results of the so-called referendum of the so-called Crimean authorities,” he said Friday.

Latest moves

In the past week, Crimea, an autonomous region in southern Ukraine with an ethnic Russian majority and strong cultural ties to Russia, has become the epicenter of a battle for influence between Moscow, Kiev and the West following protest violence last month that led to the contested ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Thousands of troops believed to be Russian are now in Crimea.

They have surrounded Ukrainian military bases, border crossings and other facilities.

On Friday, Ukrainian authorities reported a second Russian naval ship had been scuttled at the entrance to Lake Donuzlav, an inlet on the western coast of Crimea that is home to a Ukrainian naval base. Viktor Shmihanovsky, vice commander of the base, told CNN that several Ukrainian naval ships are now trapped inside.

Unidentified forces also have blocked unarmed European military observers from entering the country for the second straight day.

Masked men carrying rifles and wearing camouflage uniforms stopped the 43 observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a regional security organziation, at a checkpoint separating the mainland from the Crimean Peninsula, CNN’s Matthew Chance said.

One man, speaking in Russian, said: “I’ve been ordered by the government of Crimea not to let anyone in.”

And in signs that the pro-Russian Crimean authorities are clamping down on dissent within the peninsula, at least two Ukrainian channels, 1+1 and Channel 5, have been blocked from broadcasting terrestrially. The head of 1+1, Olexander Tkachenko, told CNN that Russian state TV outlet Channel One is now broadcasting on its frequency.

A Bulgarian freelance journalist and his colleague also were assaulted while filming in Simferopol, the regional capital. The journalist told CNN he was wrestled to the ground and a gun put to his head.

The incident was captured on surveillance footage and aired on a Ukrainian TV channel, Hromadske TV.

Monitors suggested

U.S. President Barack Obama set out a potential solution to the crisis when he spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, the White House said.

The proposal includes direct talks between Kiev and Moscow, the withdrawal of Russian forces, international support for elections on May 25, and the presence of international monitors to “ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, including ethnic Russians,” Obama said.

Asset freezes, visa bans

As they seek to put the diplomatic squeeze on Russia, European Union nations said they’ll suspend some talks with Russia and have threatened travel bans, asset freezes and cancellation of a planned EU-Russia summit.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French public radio Friday that tougher measures are planned if Moscow doesn’t act to de-escalate the situation.

“And if another attempt is made, then we would enter into something completely different — that is to say serious consequences for the relations between Europe and Russia,” he said.

The United States also has taken action. The State Department said it won’t give travel documents to Russians and Ukrainians deemed responsible for the crisis, and Obama signed an executive order laying the groundwork for sanctions.

There’s also help on hand for the fledgling government in Kiev.

Ukraine’s new government and the EU have agreed to revive a trade deal and an aid package that could bring $15 million to Ukraine.

The International Monetary Fund is also ready to help, the head of the agency’s European section said. NATO is willing to help Ukraine’s military “modernize and strengthen,” Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Friday.

Such aid is desperately needed.

The Russian gas company, Gazprom, has not received any payment from Ukraine in February, according to the company’s CEO, the Russian state news agency Itar-Tass, reported Friday.

CEO Alexey Miller said Gazprom cannot give Ukraine gas for free, Itar-Tass reported.

Paralympic plea

The Paralympic Games get under way Friday in the Russian city of Sochi, and Putin is expected to attend the opening ceremony.

Ukraine’s sports minister will not be attending.

Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and Poland are among those who also have said they will stay away. Earlier this week, the White House canceled a presidential delegation to the Paralympic Games.

Ukrainian Paralympic Committee chief Valeriy Suskevich appealed for peace in his country and said he’d made the same request of Putin on Thursday night.

“We are staying in order to be remembered, for Ukraine to be remembered as the state which sent a unified team,” he said at a news conference.

Crimean threat?

Moscow has denounced Yanukovych’s ouster last month as an illegitimate coup. He has refused to recognize the new Ukrainian authorities.

Putin has insisted he has the right to use military force in Ukraine if necessary to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea.

But Ukrainian officials say no threat exists and that Putin is using it as a pretext to control the region.

The peninsula was part of Russia until 1954 when it was transferred to Ukraine, which was then under the Soviet Union. Russia has a major naval base in the port city of Sevastopol.

Muslim minority fears for safety

Russian speakers make up about 60% of Crimea’s population, but around a quarter are Ukrainian and 12% are Crimean Tatar, a predominately Muslim minority. Neither of the latter two groups would welcome a switch to Russian control.

CNN’s Diana Magnay met with Crimean Tatars in the town of Bakhchisaray amid fears for their safety that have reminded some of past oppression under the Soviet Union.

Many spent years in exile — in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or other Soviet republics — after the Soviet Union deported them for supposedly collaborating with Adolf Hitler.

“It is not legal,” one elderly man said. “We are the original nation of Crimea. Our Khan state was here. Russia left us with no rights.

“We don’t want to be with Russia, we want to be with Ukraine,” he said.

CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark wrote this report from London, and CNN’s Alla Eshchenko reported from Moscow. CNN’s Tim Schwarz in Kiev, Bharati Naik, Chelsea J. Carter, Jason Hanna and Ursin Caderas contributed to this report.

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