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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.
Matvienko said the government welcomed the expedited referendum date, 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 the country.
The Russian parliament has scrambled to introduce legislation that would simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia. According to current constitutional law, Russia can only annex foreign 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, who have condemned Russian moves in the region.
New legislation would sidestep that requirement, according to members of parliament, who said a new bill could be passed as soon as next week.
If the new bill is passed, 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 the Caucasus nation of 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.
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