MOSCOW (AP) — Crimea would be welcome as an equal part of Russia if the region votes to leave Ukraine in an upcoming referendum, the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament said Friday.
Valentina Matvienko met with the head of the Crimean parliament to discuss the region's possible accession to Russia. On Thursday, the parliament of Crimea voted to move the referendum date up to March 16, and to include a question on joining Russia.
President Vladimir Putin told reporters during a Tuesday news conference that Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting that residents had the right to determine the region's status — and thus possible independence — by popular vote. But the March 16 referendum will give Crimea residents only two options: to join Russia or to stay with Ukraine.
"If the decision is made (by referendum), then (Crimea) will become an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation," said Matvienko. She emphasized the grievances of Russian-speaking residents in eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, which have been the Russian government's primary justification for possible intervention in its neighbor.
Tensions have risen since Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovich, fled to Russia following violent clashes in Kiev. Russia refuses to recognize the new Ukrainian government, and has moved to reinforce its control of its major Black Sea naval base in Crimea.
The referendum will be conducted with what Crimean authorities have said are over 11,000 pro-Russian forces in the region. The troops control all access to the peninsula in the Black Sea and have blockaded all Ukrainian military bases that have not yet surrendered.
Hoping to pressure Russia to roll back its military presence, the United States imposed financial sanctions and travel bans on Russians and other opponents of Ukraine's new central government on Thursday. The European Union announced that it was suspending talks with President Vladimir Putin's government on a wide-ranging economic agreement and on granting Russian citizens visa-free travel within the 28-nation bloc — a long-standing Russian objective.
Russia has denied that its forces are active in Crimea, describing the troops who wear green uniforms without insignia as local "self-defense forces." But many of the troops, who are armed with advanced heavy weaponry, are being transported around the peninsula by vehicles with Russian license plates.
Matvienko said Russia welcomed the expedited referendum date in Crimea, which was originally slated to coincide with nationwide elections on May 25. She dismissed that vote, saying there are "no conditions for honest, equal, transparent and open elections" in Ukraine.
The Russian parliament has scrambled to introduce legislation that would make it easier for Crimea to join Russia. According to current constitutional law, Russia can only annex territory by an agreement "initiated... by the given foreign government." Because Crimea is still legally Ukrainian territory, that would entail signing an agreement with new authorities in Kiev.
New legislation would sidestep that requirement, according to members of parliament, who said a new bill could be passed as soon as next week.
Crimea would be the first territory to officially join Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke away from Georgia after a brief 2008 war with Russia, have been recognized as independent by Moscow, but there have been few serious moves to enable them to join Russia.
For Putin, Crimea would be a dazzling acquisition, and help cement his authority with a Russian citizenry that has in recent years shown signs of restiveness and still resents the loss of the sprawling empire Moscow ruled in Soviet times.
About 60 percent of Crimea's population identifies itself as Russian, and many in this strategic Black Sea region have ties to Russia's black Sea Fleet which is stationed there.
In Simferopol, Crimea's capital, 75 people turned out Friday morning for a rally at the local monument to 19th century Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. They spoke both Ukrainian and Russian, but waved Ukrainian flags and released white doves into the rainy sky.
One of those at the protest was native Russian speaker Anton Romanov, who said he was opposed to the occupation of Crimea by Russian troops.
"I'm against being forced to live in a different country," he said.
Ukrainian Orthodox Bishop Kliment, whose family was deported from Crimea by Soviet authorities 1944, said the current situation was an echo of the region's past.
"This referendum is completely illegal.... What is going on now will end in slaughter," he said at the demonstration, urging the international community to step in and stop the March 16 vote.
So far Russia has not balked at threats of further sanctions, seeing little bite in the bark of its Western partners.
Vladimir Chizhov ,the Russian ambassador to the EU, criticized the sanctions but played down their significance.
"If someone thinks that they can scare us with such horror stories, then they are deeply mistaken," he told Russian news agencies late Thursday night.
Tim Sullivan in Simferopol and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.