Voters in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are headed to the polls to decide on whether to declare independence from Ukraine - a move that defies a call from the Russian president to postpone them and draws ire from the US, the European Union and the government in Kiev, who say that they’re illegal.
Independence vote in eastern Ukraine despite international condemnation
Residents in two Ukrainian regions began voting in referendums on autonomy as European leaders threatened more sanctions for Russian president Vladimir Putin tied to a May 25 presidential election.
The separatist votes in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions on whether to declare independence from Ukraine defy a call from Mr Putin to postpone them and condemnation from the US, the European Union and the government in Kiev, who say that they are illegal. Ukraine’s government also continued a military operation against pro-Russian insurgents in which at least 20 people died last week.
The EU said it might announce new sanctions as soon as Monday on Russian companies that seized assets after Putin annexed Crimea in March, while the US threatened “deeper costs.”
As their worst standoff since the Cold War escalates, an international election monitoring group, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said the plebiscites could not be legitimate.
“The idea that free and fair voting could take place in these so-called referendums is absurd,” OSCE Parliamentary Assembly president Ranko Krivokapic said Saturday on the group’s website. “Not only are these referendums completely illegitimate in the eyes of the international community, they would be taking place amid a climate of fear, violence and lawlessness that is sure to keep many away from polling places.”
The US and the EU accuse Putin of fomenting unrest in what may be a prelude to a land grab similar to the move in Crimea, where armed separatists held a referendum before Russia took over the peninsula. EU leaders say the situation may be spiraling out of Putin’s control.
“Armed thugs with modern weapons are stirring old tensions and stoking new hatreds,” UK foreign secretary William Hague said in an interview Saturday in the Daily Telegraph. Putin “seems to have unleashed forces that he cannot control”, Mr Hague said.
Ukrainian government forces clashed with rebels overnight in Slovyansk, according to news service RIA Novosti. Before voting began, the troops captured a group of rebels in the city carrying 100,000 ballots for the Donetsk referendum already marked “yes,” Liga news agency reported.
The website included photographs and a video showing the marked ballots and unidentified individuals lying face down on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs.
The Kiev government, which took over after Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych was toppled by protesters in February, opposes the referendums. Organisers don’t have access to the official electoral register or other voting infrastructure.
The US rejected the votes as “illegal under Ukrainian law” and “an attempt to create further division and disorder,” US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
“The Russian leadership must know that if it continues to destabilise eastern Ukraine and disrupt this month’s presidential election, we will move quickly to impose greater costs on Russia.”
Nato says Putin has arrayed a force of as many as 40,000 troops and that his government has sent special forces and intelligence agents to support the separatists to disrupt the presidential election two weeks from now.
“The Russian president must send out more signals of de-escalation so the elections can take place,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Saturday after talks with French president Francois Hollande in Stralsund, Germany. “We’ve had first signs, but these have to get stronger so eastern and southern Ukraine also get the message that everyone wants free and general presidential elections.”
The “main part” of the preparatory work for the presidential ballot has been completed, according to Oleksandr Chernenko, chairman of the Ukrainian Voters Committee, a non-governmental group that monitors elections.
“The Donetsk and Luhansk regions are the main danger zones, of course, but even there about 50 per cent of people plan to vote,” he said by phone on Saturday. “The main risk is that separatists may use force to intimidate them.”
Voting may be fully disrupted in only parts of the two restive regions, he said, adding that Ukraine has no minimum turnout threshold for elections to be declared valid.
Twenty insurgents and at least one government serviceman died in a battle for control of a police building in the city of Mariupol, Ukraine’s acting interior minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page May 9. The second-largest city in the Donetsk region is less than 60 kilometers from the Russian border.
Merkel and Hollande, leaders of the two biggest euro-area economies, urged armed groups to surrender weapons starting May 15 to the OSCE and said Ukraine must hold an internationally recognised vote.
Germany and France also said the Ukrainian government of prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk should avoid excessive force, speed up constitutional reform and start a national dialogue about decentralising power and minority rights.
In a televised speech May 9, acting Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynov said the nation is moving toward decentralisation.
“A strong Ukraine can’t exist if it doesn’t have strong regions,” he said. “We’re moving in this direction by preparing constitutional amendments.”