Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, made clear Friday the country would welcome Crimea if it votes in the referendum to join its giant neighbor. About 60 percent of Crimea’s population identifies itself as Russian.
“If the decision is made, then (Crimea) will become an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation,” Matvienko said during a visit from the chairman of the Crimean parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov. She spoke of mistreatment of Russian-speaking residents in Ukraine’s east and south, which has been Moscow’s primary argument for possible intervention in Ukraine.
The Russian parliament is scrambling to make it easier for Crimea to join Russia. Russia’s constitution allows the country to annex territory only by an agreement “initiated... by the given foreign government.” That would entail signing an agreement with the new authorities in Kiev, whom Moscow doesn’t recognize.
New legislation would sidestep that requirement, according to members of parliament, who initially said a new bill could be passed as soon as next week, but have since indicated that they will wait until after the referendum.
On the other side of Red Square from the parliament building, 65,000 people gathered at a Kremlin-organized rally in support of Crimea.
“We always knew that Russia would not abandon us,” Konstantinov shouted from the stage. He also called on Moscow not to forget other Russia-leaning regions in Ukraine.
“We must not leave the Ukrainian people at the mercy of those Nazi bandits,” he said, referring to the new government in Kiev.
Russian state gas company Gazprom also increased the pressure on Ukraine’s new government, which now owes $1.89 billion for Russian natural gas. Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller said if Ukraine doesn’t pay off its debt, “there is a risk of returning to the situation of the beginning of 2009” when Russia cut off supplies to Europe because of a pricing dispute with Ukraine.