MOSCOW, October 1. /TASS/. The speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament has invited a leading European parliamentarian to visit Crimea with him to prove it was the Black Sea peninsula citizens' own free will to join Russia.
"Let’s visit Crimea together. You’ll have an opportunity to talk to people on the streets and in the squares who will tell you they now feel free," Speaker Sergey Naryshkin told Ilkka Kanerva, president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's parliamentary assembly on Thursday.
Naryshkin was speaking to the European delegate at an international parliamentary forum in Moscow, responding to a remark in a speech by Kanerva about Crimea's "annexation".
"Crimea became free [in March 2014] thanks to the free will of two million Crimean citizens," Naryshkin replied, echoing comments earlier in the day when Duma Deputy Vasily Likhachev, a former Russian ambassador to the European Union, said Duma lawmakers were ready to organize a trip to Crimea for a European Parliament delegation led by French MEP Nadine Morana.
"If they wish, we will tackle all organizational matters and create conditions for them to visit Crimea," Likhachev told journalists, not ruling out that the issue would be discussed at a meeting between Morano and colleagues with Duma head Naryshkin on Friday.
Prospects for several high-level west European parliamentary delegations to visit Crimea were announced in September by Leonid Slutsky, chairing the Duma committee on Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Eurasian Integration and Ties with Compatriots.
Slutsky recalled at the time that French lawmakers had gone to Crimea in the summer — a visit which, he said, helped "the world to learn the truth about what is happening in Russia’s Crimea".
Following the visit, Western media had stopped publishing stories "about how the Crimean population is suffering and about an ongoing war there", said the lawmaker, accompanying the group of 10 representatives of the French National Assembly and the Senate on the first visit of Western parliamentarians since the referendum calling for reunification with Russia.
Returning from the peninsula, French deputies called on the West to lift sanctions against Russia and to recognize Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. "Crimea is an absolutely peaceful region," said Claude Goasguen, a member of the National Assembly representing Paris at the time.
"Crimea residents cannot be criticized for the fact that there is no war on their territory. They cannot be criticized for the fact that the referendum brought them peace," he said, calling for resumed dialogue between Russia and France.
Crimea re-joined Russia in March 2014. This followed a referendum in which more than 82% of the mainly ethnic-Russian electorate took part, rejecting legitimacy of authorities brought to power amid riots and a coup in the capital, Kiev, the month before.
More than 96% backed splitting from Ukraine — poll results celebrated by many Crimeans but widely criticized by Western leaders and at the United Nations.
In Soviet times, Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when Communist Party head Nikita Khrushchev transferred the Crimean region, along with the Russian federal city of Sevastopol, to Ukraine's jurisdiction as a gift. The peninsula remained part of independent Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.