SIMFEROPOL, March 10 (RIA Novosti) – Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov said Monday that preparations for the the southern Ukrainian region to become part of Russia are already underway.
Crimea was flooded with Russian troops following the fall of the government in the capital, Kiev, last month and a referendum to decide whether the region will become part of Russia will take place on March 16.
The peninsula will be ready to begin using Russian law within a couple of months of a pro-secession vote, and the local Finance Ministry is already working on a roadmap for switching from the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, to the Russian ruble, Aksyonov said in an interview with RIA Novosti.
The referendum in Crimea, where ethnic Russians make up about 60 percent of the population, is widely expected to return a favourable result that will pave the way for annexation by Moscow.
Aksyonov also promised that Ukrainian would cease to be an official language if Crimea joined Russia.
“We use two languages on a daily basis – Russian and Crimean Tatar,” Aksyonov said. “It’s certain that the republic [of Crimea] will have two languages.”
About 15 percent of Crimea's population of about 2 million people are ethnic Tatars, among whom support for the incoming regime in Kiev is reportedly strong. Aksyonov has also promised senior political positions in a new Crimean government to members of the Tatar community.
Formerly the leader of a local pro-Russian political party, Aksyonov was appointed prime minister last month by a vote in the Crimean parliament. At the time of the vote the parliament was being guarded by unidentified, masked gunmen who occupied the building the previous night.
Large quantities of heavily armed Russian troops accompanied by armored personnel carriers, military jeeps and other vehicles have entered Crimea in recent weeks.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied the presence of Russian military in the region and maintains that the armed men are members of local self defense organizations.
The planned referendum has been brought forward twice from its original date of May 25 since it was announced by local lawmakers last month.
The authorities in Kiev and international leaders have condemned the referendum as illegitimate.