SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine The Crimean Tatar leader promoting a boycott of Sunday's referendum on transferring the Ukrainian region to Russian rule is sure the Kremlin will rig the vote and appealed to the outside world to protect his once persecuted community.
"The result has already been decided by Moscow," Refat Chubarov told Reuters in an interview on Monday in the Crimean capital Simferopol, where he heads the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, a Ukrainian public body that represents some 12 percent of the Black Sea peninsula's two million people.
"There are troops in the streets. There are 30,000 armed men, armored vehicles, planes landing with foreign troops, and the administrative buildings have all been seized," he said of last week's takeover of Crimea by Russian forces following the overthrow of the pro-Moscow Ukrainian president in Kiev.
"It's a fake referendum, an attempt to provide cover for this aggression," Chubarov said, arguing that voting would mean betraying a Ukrainian state whose interim government says local leaders had no right to call the referendum. "The whole of Crimea is being asked to become collective collaborators."
The move by newly installed leaders in Crimea - whom Chubarov described as a "puppet government" - has support among ethnic Russians, a majority in the region which Soviet rulers transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954.
But Tatars, like many ethnic Ukrainians on the peninsula, are strongly opposed to falling under the control of Russian President Vladimir Putin and want be governed from Kiev. Some Tatars have joined demonstrations calling for "national unity".
A Muslim Turkic people, the Tatars suffered persecution after Russia seized Crimea in the 18th century. In World War Two, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported them en masse to Central Asia, accusing them of aiding Nazi German invaders.
Tatars have returned in large numbers to Crimea only in the past 30 years. Some have warned that Islamist militants in the region might take up arms against Moscow, as Chechens and other Muslim groups in the Russian Caucasus have done.
Chubarov denied his call for a boycott risked backfiring by making a Yes vote to union with Russia more likely, arguing it was important to take a principled stand to expose the ballot as a sham: "We're not handing victory to anyone," he said.
"We're showing the absurdity of this referendum."
But he was hoping the outside world, which has struggled to respond to the gravest crisis between Moscow and the West since the Cold War, would not leave them to face "injustice" alone.
"If everything goes to the plan written in Moscow, it will mean that the whole world has turned out to be powerless before injustice and force," he said. "We have neither the weapons nor the strength to stop this injustice on our own".
(Writing by Andrew Osborn in Sevastopol; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)