Russia marks Crimea annexation anniversary
Russia on Wednesday marked one year since the annexation of Crimea by President Vladimir Putin in a redrawing of Europe's map that shattered ties with Ukraine and the West but sent his approval ratings soaring at home.
Crowds were expected to flock to a concert by the walls of the Kremlin and festivities around Crimea as part of highly-choreographed celebrations of the takeover of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine.
The Kremlin strongman was due to hold a meeting in Moscow with loyal leaders from Crimea to discuss the region's development ahead of a possible triumphant appearance on stage before supporters.
The events will be the culmination of days of officially sanctioned festivities to laud the anniversary of the annexation that was condemned by Kiev and the West as an illegal land grab but heralded by many Russians as correcting a historic injustice.
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 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.
As Wednesday's events kicked off around Russia, state television showed flag-waving crowds already gathering in the far-eastern city of Vladivostok.
In Crimea, people were given a day off work with concerts and firework displays planned for later.
"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 its 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.
© 2015 AFP