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Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-03-10

As separatists in Crimea kept up pressure to rejoin Russia, Ukraine marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of its greatest poet on Sunday, with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk vowing not to give up “a single centimetre” of Ukrainian territory.

“This is our land,” Yatsenyuk told a crowd gathered at a monument to poet and nationalist Taras Shevchenko in the capital Kiev. “Our fathers and grandfathers have spilled their blood for this land. And we won’t budge a single centimetre from Ukrainian land. Let Russia and its president know this.”

“We’re one country, one family and we’re here together with our kobzar (bard) Taras,” said the country’s acting President Oleksandr Turchinov.

‘This is our land,’ Yatsenyuk says

In the afternoon, tens of thousands of Ukrainians massed in central Kiev for an interfaith prayer meeting to show their unity and honour Shevchenko, a son of peasant serfs who is considered the father of modern Ukrainian literature.

One of the speakers, former imprisoned Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, almost burst into tears as he implored the crowd to believe that not all Russians support the country’s recent actions in Ukraine.

“I want you to know there is a completely different Russia,” Khodorkovsky said.

Putin defends Crimea referendum

But in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear that he supports plans by the Crimean Peninsula’s regional parliament to hold a referendum March 16 on leaving Ukraine to join Russia.

Crimea found itself at the centre of Ukraine’s crisis when Russian forces essentially occupied the region shortly after former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich fled the country last month.

Yanukovich was forced from power following three months of fierce demonstrations against his decision to back out of a trade deal with the European Union to negotiate a $15 billion financial aid agreement with Russia instead.

In phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Minister David Cameron on Sunday, Putin defended the situation in Crimea, where Russia reinforced its armed presence this weekend, the Kremlin said.

“The steps taken by the legitimate leadership of Crimea are based on the norms of international law and aim to ensure the legal interests of the population of the peninsula,” said Putin, according to the Kremlin.

Merkel, however, told Putin the referendum violated Ukraine’s constitution and was against international law, a written statement from the German government said.

Pro-Russia demonstrations in Crimea

In Simferopol, the Crimean capital, a crowd of more than 4,000 people turned out Sunday to endorse unification with Russia. On Lenin Square, a naval band played World War II songs as old women sang along, and dozens of tricolour Russian flags fluttered in the cold wind.

“Russians are our brothers,” Crimean Parliament speaker Vladimir Konstantinov said, asking the crowd how it would vote in the referendum one week hence.

“Russia! Russia!” was the loud response.

“We are going back home to the Motherland,” said Konstantinov.

Across town, at a park where a large bust of Shevchenko stands, around 500 people – some wearing yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags on their shoulders like capes – staged a counter-protest, chanting “No to the referendum!” and “Ukraine!”

“We will not allow a foreign boot that wants to stand on the heads of our children,” one of the speakers, Alla Petrova, said. “The people are not scared. We are not scared to come out here and speak.”

FRANCE 24’s Robert Parsons reports from Crimea

Some pro-Russians drove by, shouting “Moscow, Moscow!” from their cars, but there was no trouble.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who appeared on the BBC Sunday morning, described Russia’s entering Crimea as a “big miscalculation.”

He also said the March 16 referendum was happening “ridiculously quickly.” Hague added, “The world will not be able to regard that as free or fair.”

During his conversations with Cameron and Merkel, Putin criticised the Western leaders for what he said was their failure to press the new government in Kiev to curb ultranationalist and radical forces.

But the Kremlin also said that despite their differences, the three leaders expressed an interest in reducing tensions and normalizing the situation in Ukraine as soon as possible.


Date created : 2014-03-09


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