SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — For Vadim Mordashov, Sunday’s referendum in Crimea was a dream come true.
By midday — long before voting ended — the bespectacled separatist, a former parliamentarian and veteran of the region’s pro-Russian political scene, was already gushing with confidence.
“After 23 years, we’re finally celebrating the liberation of Crimea from Ukrainian occupation,” said the slight 58-year-old, his leather newsboy cap and neatly trimmed beard lending him the air of a Bolshevik revolutionary.
In the event, an overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted to join Russia.
Three weeks and one dubious vote after Kremlin-backed separatists here took power, they’ve achieved what the region’s fringe pro-Moscow movement couldn’t for two decades.
Thanks to the thousands of Russian troops that seized control of the peninsula as well as a Russian state media campaign that’s convinced most locals of the “fascist” threat Kyiv’s new authorities post to Crimea, the region is just a minor legality or two away from formally joining Russia.
The Kremlin’s actions may have caught Kyiv unaware by taking place almost overnight, but they exploited longstanding grievances that briefly buoyed an ill-fated secession movement in the 1990s headed by separatist Yuriy Meshkov, Crimea’s only president.
At the center of that movement was a 1992 Crimean constitution that granted a form of de facto independence to the region. While it kept the region in Ukraine “on the basis of a treaty,” it theoretically allowed it to enter into relations with other sovereign states.
Elected in 1994, Meshkov had been a strong advocate for Crimean independence and pushed for an eventual union with Russia amid a burst of separatist sentiments at the time.
However, Kyiv clamped down on his government the following year, abolished the Crimean presidency and forced through a constitution that kept the region firmly within Ukraine.
Meshkov fled to Moscow and stayed until 2011, when he returned to Ukraine only to be deported for allegedly agitating for a return of the 1992 constitution.
That document has played a part in the current crisis.
During Sunday’s vote — in which an improbable 97 percent of Crimeans voted to join Russia — the only other choice was to restore the 1992 constitution. Only 3 percent voted for the second option.
Even for politicians who never advocated secession, such as Vadim Kolesnichenko, a deputy from Crimea in Ukraine’s parliament, resentment against Kyiv is strong.
In a recent interview in Sevastopol, Kolesnichenko — an author of the 1992 constitution — said the peninsula’s self-governing authority has been “multiplied by zero” over the years.
“Today, Crimea has an operetta government, and it has no more power than any other regional administration,” he said.
Others, like Mordashov, a top Meshkov lieutenant, point to what they say had been years of abuse by the central government in Kyiv, which they allege exploited the region for its resources and gave little back.
“The taxes generated by Crimea have always been snatched away by Kyiv, and in the end it amounts to the pillaging of a colony,” he said.
“And now we see the result.”
Meanwhile, both the Kremlin and local officials here have played heavily on the deep historical ties between Russia and Crimea, which reach back more than 200 years.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed them in a Kremlin address on Tuesday during which he asked parliament to formalize Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
“To understand the reason behind such a choice,” he said, “it’s enough to know the history of Crimea and what Russia and Crimea have always meant for each other.”
But despite the sense of joy that’s pervaded Simferopol in recent days, the future is far from clear.
Hours after Putin’s proposal to annex Crimea on Tuesday, nervous customers milled outside a branch of Ukraine’s largest bank, reading a print-out taped to its glass doors announcing that it was no longer serving customers — but instead working in a “technical regime,” meaning ATM service only.
Even then, the bank set a withdrawal limit of $50.
There are a multitude of logistical concerns associated with uprooting regional institutions, such as nationalizing former Ukrainian assets, paying pensions and administering citizenship.
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Even more pressing is what to do with the Ukrainian servicemen who remain inside their bases, at least one of whom was reported killed Tuesday night amid a gunfight with pro-Russian gunmen.
Meanwhile, locals are offering a laundry list of problems they’d like Moscow to tackle once it absorbs Crimea.
“It’s difficult to say what the priority should be, since so much has been destroyed here,” said 50-year-old Alexei Tokhtamysh, a member of local ecological society.
But a good start, he says, would be reforming the education system, boosting healthcare, and stimulating the agricultural sector.
“The priority,” he added, “is the people.”
Judging by Moscow’s failed promises to revive South Ossetia, an impoverished Georgian separatist region Moscow invaded in 2008, it’s not clear that Russia will actually fulfill the dreams of many here.