Putin fetes Crimea takeover in front of huge crowd

18th March 2015, Comments 0 comments

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday triumphantly joined tens of thousands of supporters to mark one year since his takeover of Crimea, a seismic shift that shattered ties with Ukraine and the West.

Putin appeared on stage in front of a flag-waving crowd at a celebratory concert by the walls of the Kremlin to make an impassioned justification for seizing the Black Sea peninsula in a move that sent his poll ratings soaring.

"We understood that in terms of Crimea it was not a matter of just some territory, however strategically important it is," Putin told the crowd.

"It was a matter of millions of Russian people, our compatriots, who needed our help and support," he said, before joining in a rendition of the national anthem.

The concert in Moscow -- estimated to have drawn 110,000 people by local police -- was the culmination of days of highly-choreographed nationwide festivities to mark the anniversary.

Despite condemnation from the West and Kiev that the radical redrawing of Europe's borders amounted to an illegal land grab, people at the event echoed the belief of many Russian that the annexation had corrected a historical injustice.

"It means a lot to us, it was always ours after all. Our grandparents shed their blood for it," said Alexei, 39, a security guard who stood smoking with his friends near Saint Basil's Cathedral.

While some Russians celebrated having recovered Crimea, Amnesty International accused the region's pro-Kremlin authorities of an "unrelenting campaign of intimidation to silence dissent" under Russia's rule.

"Since Russia annexed Crimea, the de facto authorities are using a vast array of bully boy tactics to crack down on dissent; a spate of abductions between March and September have prompted many vocal critics to leave the region," John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Director for Europe and Central Asia, said.

"Those remaining face a range of harassment from authorities determined to silence their opponents," he said in a statement.

- 'Return home' -

Putin signed a treaty claiming the Black Sea region of Crimea as Russian territory with Crimean prime minister Sergei Aksyonov two days after more than 97 percent of Crimeans voted in favour of joining Russia in a disputed referendum on March 16, 2014.

The poll -- unrecognised by the international community -- was held under the eyes of elite Russian troops who had swarmed key sites across Crimea two weeks earlier in unmarked uniforms.

In Crimea, people were given a day off work to enjoy concerts and firework displays.

"For us Crimeans this is a celebration of our long-awaited return home," the Moscow-backed Aksyonov said in a statement.

"Russia protected our legitimate right to choose for ourselves unity with our historical motherland."

Putin claims he was forced to take over Crimea -- home to Russia's key Black Sea Fleet -- to protect ethnic Russians in the wake of the ouster of Ukraine's Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.

To many Russians, it was considered justified payback for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handing the region to Ukraine in 1954 in what was then a largely symbolic move since Ukraine and Russia were both part of the USSR.

The move sent relations with Kiev and the West into a tailspin that has seen sanctions batter the Russian economy and Crimea placed under an effective economic blockade by Ukraine.

A pro-Russian rebellion -- which the West says has been orchestrated by Moscow -- quickly also engulfed part of Ukraine's industrial east, sparking a nearly year-long conflict that has claimed over 6,000 lives.

Ukraine and the United States have said that they will never accept the annexation of Crimea by Russia.

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© 2015 AFP

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