How will things change in Crimea if it joins Russia?
Voters in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula make a choice Sunday: Stay with Ukraine or join with Russia. The pro-Russian faction promises that a vote for "the motherland" is a vote for a better life. Many on the pro-Ukraine side fear a return to Russian rule.
How will life really change in Crimea if the referendum is approved? My colleagues Carol Morello and Pamela Constable in Crimea, Kathy Lally in Moscow, and Anne Gearan in Washington have been covering the news, and here's what they've found out:
Q: Let's start with money matters. Who will pay the pensions of retirees who paid into the Ukrainian system?
A: Voters are being told that Russia will assume the obligations for all pensions, with a big leap in benefits. For example, the average monthly pension in Russia is said to be about $270, almost double the $150 paid in the average Ukrainian's monthly pension. And the retirement age will drop by five years, to 60 for men and 55 for women.
Q: Will people working in government offices, schools and hospitals lose their jobs?
A: Authorities have vowed that nobody who is doing satisfactory work will be fired, and most will get raises.
Q: And what about schools?
A: Schoolchildren are expected to get new history books with a more outsize section on Russian history and its version of events, such as World War II, which Russians and Crimeans refer to as the "Great Patriotic War." Officials say that for the next year, at least, Crimeans will be allowed to enroll at Russian universities without taking an entrance exam. Next year, they will have to take the regular Russian enrollment exam.
Q: Will everyone get Russian passports?
A: Though details are still being ironed out, it is believed that all native Russian speakers - which most people in Crimea area - will be eligible for Russian passports. People who choose to keep their Ukrainian passports won't be forced to leave, but they won't be able to vote in elections.
Q: Will it be harder to travel outside of Crimea?
A: That depends. The only commercial planes that regularly fly out of Crimea go to Moscow, Istanbul and Kiev, Ukraine's capital. There's a train that goes to Kiev. But if Ukraine and Crimea do not establish friendly relations, it will become much more difficult to get out of Crimea.
Q: What will happen to the Ukrainian soldiers and sailors who are now stranded on military bases and ships surrounded by pro-Russia self-defense militias and Russian troops?
A: They will be given a choice of switching over to either the new Crimean forces or the Russian armed forces. Those who stick with the Ukrainian military would have to leave for the mainland. Those who switch allegiance are being promised Russian military pensions - about $600 monthly, compared with $240 a month for the average Ukrainian military pension. They are being promised generous housing allowances, as well.
Q: What about the United States? What's its view of the referendum?
A: The vote is almost certain to overwhelmingly favour annexation by Russia. The United States claims the outcome is foreordained and effectively rigged, both by the way the question is framed and because of Russian intimidation. The United States has all but written off hopes of averting the referendum. The focus now is on what happens next.
The United States and the European Union are ready to impose sanctions on individual Russians on Monday for alleged financial crimes in Ukraine and the orchestration of the Russian incursion in Crimea. The European Union identified some 120 people Friday who could be targeted. Some or all of those sanctions could be suspended if there is diplomatic progress before Monday.
At the same time, the United States and Britain, among others, were trying to persuade Russia to refrain from ratifying the Crimea vote. The result would be some kind of limbo, in which Crimea would most likely function as part of Russia but technically remain part of Ukraine.
The West is also quietly telling Russia that it risks further sanctions and other penalties if it moves beyond Crimea.
Q: And if the Russians annex the peninsula? What happens then, and why is that considered a bigger deal?
A: If the Russian parliament acts on the Crimean vote swiftly, without allowing further negotiation with the interim Ukrainian government in Kiev, it will be taken by the West as proof that Moscow intended to grab Crimea all along. Sanctions would surely go ahead, perhaps followed by further economic penalties targeting Russian banks or other sectors. The West would probably boycott the summer G-8 meeting in Sochi, Russia, and could move to limit Russian participation in other diplomatic groupings.
Q: How will laws change in Crimea?
A: Ukrainian and Russian criminal law is said to be similar. But houses, cars and other property will have to be re-registered with Russian authorities before they can be sold. Birth and marriage certificates may have to be re-registered, as well. Lawyers have been told that their Ukrainian license to practice law will be valid in Russian courts, but there is expected to be a backlog in the courts while judges and attorneys learn the ins and outs of Russian law.
Q: Electricity and gas?
A: Ukrainians say it could take a while - Crimeans say months, but it could be far longer - to hook Crimea up to the Russian grid, and if Ukraine cuts access some residents might lose power for a while. But filling up cars will be cheaper, as Russian gasoline is about 60 per cent of what it costs in Ukraine.