MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine two years ago as a long-awaited moment of “historic justice,” while Western governments assailed Moscow over the annexation and Human Rights Watch described a “pervasive climate of fear and repression” on the peninsula.
On national television, Putin thanked Crimeans for what he termed their act of “free will” in backing the annexation in a referendum in March 2014, which was widely seen as illegitimate by the international community and followed a military takeover of the Black Sea peninsula.
As Putin marked the anniversary with a trip to an island off Crimea, where he inspected building work on a massive bridge to Russia, the European Union decried Russia’s “military buildup” on the territory and called on more nations to impose sanctions on Moscow -- as the EU, the United States, and other Western countries have done.
A prominent Crimean Tatar leader likened Putin to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who deported the Crimean Tatar community en masse during World War II, and said he was visiting the scene of the crime.
EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini expressed "deep concern" at the "deterioration of the human rights situation" in Crimea, where activists say the Muslim Tatar minority and others who opposed Russia's takeover have faced discrimination, harassment, and violence.
"The European Union remains committed to fully implementing its non-recognition policy, including through restrictive measures," the European Council, which represents EU governments, said in a statement. "The EU calls again on UN member states to consider similar nonrecognition measures."
Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned what it called a "pervasive climate of fear and repression" that has gripped the peninsula, drawing attention to "enforced disappearances, attacks and beatings of Crimean Tatar and pro-Ukraine activists and journalists."
In Moscow and other cities, the state organized numerous celebrations to mark the annexation of what Putin has called "sacred" Russian land -- part of a Kremlin narrative aimed at pushing aside protests from Kyiv and the West and instill pride in Russians.
State television showed thousands of Russians waving flags and singing along at a celebratory concert called “We’re Together” near the Kremlin to mark the annexation, which was widely supported in Russia but ruined ties with Ukraine and set off the most severe tension between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
The crowd stretched hundreds of meters back along the bridge where opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, a strident critic of Putin’s interference in Ukraine, was shot dead in February 2015.
Putin congratulated Russians on the annexation in a short clip broadcast on state-run Channel One that was also shown at the concert and met with cheers.
"Without any exaggeration whatsoever, millions of people had waited for and thought about this historic justice. It happened thanks to the free will of Crimean and Sevastopol residents in a referendum two years ago. Now that we are together, we can do even more," said Putin.
The State Duma, Russia's lower parliament house, said it would work a half-day to allow lawmakers to attend the pop concert by the Kremlin. Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR party has called for March 18 -- the day a treaty was signed in 2014 that in the Kremlin's eyes made Crimea part of Russia -- to be made an official national holiday.
Putin -- who at first denied sending troops to Crimea but later emphasized that he personally oversaw the operation to annex the peninsula -- traveled to Tuzla Island, which lies in the Kerch Strait between Crimea and southern Russia. He visited the site of part of a bridge Russia is building to Crimea, whose only existing connections to the mainland are with southern Ukraine.
According to the state-run news agency TASS, the bridge is slated to cost 212 billion rubles ($3.1 billion) -- about six times what Putin said on May 17 was the amount Russia had spent on its military operation in Syria since launching air strikes in September.
Putin has rejected international criticism of the annexation and has said the transition to Russian rule was smooth.
But HRW said that the "space for free speech, freedom of association, and media in Crimea has shrunk dramatically" since the takeover.
Crimea's isolation has made it very difficult to conduct comprehensive human rights monitoring there," Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director for HRW, said in a statement. "But serious human rights abuses in Crimea should not slip to the bottom of the international agenda."
Crimean Tatars made up about 12 percent of the peninsula's population before the Russian takeover and largely opposed it, many of them boycotting the March 16, 2014, referendum in which Crimean residents were asked whether they wanted to join Russia.
Several Crimean Tatars have been abducted or disappeared, and the Mejlis -- the Crimean Tatars' self-governing body -- has had its property in Crimea confiscated and may soon be "banned" by the Russian authorities who control the peninsula.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service on March 18, Crimean Tatar leader Refat Chubarov said that Putin's “adventurous attack on Ukraine,” his military campaign in Syria, and the “harsh limitation of human rights” in Russia will catch up with him sooner or later.
"In the last two years, [Putin] always makes decisions which turn out really catastrophically for Russia itself," he said. "I just think Putin will help us wake up Russian society sooner."
Russia moved to seize Crimea shortly after Ukraine’s president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, was pushed from power by protesters angry over his decision to abandon plans for a landmark pact with the EU and forge closer ties with Moscow. Russia subsequently backed separatists who seized parts of eastern Ukraine, leading to a war that has killed more than 9,100 people.
Speaking to students in Prague on March 17, Chubarov compared Putin to Stalin -- under whom the Crimean Tatar population was deported en masse to Central Asia during World War II, with many of them dying on the way or after arrival.
“A criminal is always drawn to the scene of a crime,” he said of Putin’s visit. “The world already knew one paranoiac of the 20th century, and we all know how that ended.”
With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics.
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.