People wait to enter a polling station and take part in the
referendum on the status of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, in
Moscow. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Pro-Moscow rebels expressed confidence eastern Ukraine
had chosen self-rule in a referendum, while differing on what
that meant as fighting flared in a conflict that could pitch
Russia and the West into a new Cold War.
Well before polls closed, one separatist leader said the
region would form its own state bodies and military after the
referendum, formalising a split that began with the armed
takeover of state buildings in a dozen eastern towns last
Another said the vote would not change the region's status,
but simply show that the East wanted to decide its own fate,
whether in Ukraine, on its own or as part of Russia.
A near festive atmosphere at makeshift polling stations in
some areas belied the potentially grave implications of the
event. In others, clashes broke out between separatists and
troops, over ballot papers and control of a television tower.
Zhenya Denyesh, a 20-year-old student voting early at a
university building in the rebel stronghold of Slaviansk,
said: "We all want to live in our own country". But asked
what he thought would follow, he replied: "It will still be
In the southeastern port of Mariupol, scene of fierce
fighting last week, there were only eight polling centres for
a population of half a million. Queues grew to hundreds of
metres in bright sunshine, with spirits high as one centre
overflowed and ballot boxes were brought onto the street.
On the eastern outskirts, a little over an hour after polls
opened, soldiers from Kiev seized what they said were
falsified ballot papers, marked with Yes votes, and detained
They refused to hand the men over to policemen who came to
take them away, saying they did not trust them. Instead they
waited for state security officers to interview and arrest
On the edge of Slaviansk, fighting broke out around a
television tower shortly before people began making their way
through barricades of felled trees, tyres and machinery for a
vote Western leaders say is being orchestrated by Moscow. The
Ukrainian defence ministry said one serviceman was wounded.
The West has threatened more sanctions against Russia in the
key areas of energy, financial services and engineering if it
continues what they regard as efforts to destabilise Ukraine.
The European Union declared the vote illegal on Sunday and
may announce some modest measures as soon as Monday, limited
by the bloc's reluctance to upset trade ties with Russia.
Moscow denies any role in the fighting or any ambitions to
absorb the mainly Russian-speaking east, an industrial hub,
into the Russian Federation following its annexation of the
Black Sea peninsula of Crimea after a referendum in March.
Ukraine's Interior Ministry called the referendum a criminal
farce, its ballot papers "soaked in blood". One official said
that two thirds of the territory had declined to participate.
Ballot papers in the referendum in the regions of Luhansk and
Donetsk, which has declared itself a "People's Republic",
were printed without security provision, voter registration
was patchy and there was confusion over what the vote was
for. Separatists in Luhansk said only five percent had voted
Engineer Sergei, 33, voting in the industrial centre of
Mariupol, said he would answer "Yes" to the question printed
in Russian and Ukrainian on the ballot: "Do you support the
act of state self-rule of the Donetsk People's Republic?"
"We're all for the independence of the Donetsk republic," he
said. "It means leaving behind that fascist, pro-American
government (in Kiev), which brought no one any good."
AUTONOMY, INDEPENDENCE, ANNEXATION
But in the same queue of voters, 54-year-old Irina, saw a
"Yes" vote as endorsement of autonomy within Ukraine.
"I want Donetsk to have its own powers, some kind of
autonomy, separate from Kiev. I'm not against a united
Ukraine, but not under those people we did not choose, who
seized power and are going to ruin the country," she said.
Others see the vote as a nod to absorption by Russia.
Annexation is favoured by the more prominent rebels, but the
ambiguity may reflect their fears an explicit call for full
"independence" might not have garnered the support they seek
and could leave them in an exposed position towards Kiev.
The present government came to power when President Viktor
Yanokovich was toppled in February after mass protests in
Pro-Western activists were angered by his decision to discard
a cooperation accord with the European Union in favour of
closer ties with Moscow. They also accused him of corruption
penetrating all areas of the Ukrainian state.
Voting is due to end in the hastily arranged referendum in 53
locations at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT) and the rebels hope to have
the ballots counted by Monday afternoon, although its outcome
will not be widely recognised internationally or by Kiev.
With several hours of polling to go, Russian news agencies
were already reporting a turnout of more than 75 percent,
although a separatist spokesman in Luhansk said troops had
prevented the movement of ballot papers in several areas.
One way or another it is likely to show a large "yes" vote,
and one leading separatist said Ukrainian troops would be
declared illegal occupiers once results were announced.
"It is necessary to form state bodies and military
authorities as soon as possible," Denis Pushilin, a leader of
the self-styled Donetsk republic said, according to Interfax
Roman Lyagin, head of the rebel central electoral commission,
struck a less radical tone to reporters in Donetsk.
"With the announcement of the results the status of the
Donetsk region does not change in absolute terms. We do not
cease to be a part of Ukraine, we do not become a part of
Russia," he said, although he left those options open.
"We want only to declare to the world that we want changes
... We want to decide the fate of our region ourselves,"
Moscow has massed troops on the border and Kiev fears they
may be called in as peacekeepers. Serhiy Pashinsky, head of
the Ukrainian presidential administration, said a column of
armoured vehicles on the Russian side of the border bore the
colours of U.N. peacekeeping forces. He offered no evidence
"We warn the Kremlin that appearance of these forces on the
territory of Ukraine would be assessed as military aggression
and we would react as we would in the case of military
aggression," he told reporters.
"INTO THE ABYSS"
Ukrainian leader Oleksander Turchinov has urged eastern
political leaders to join a "Round Table" discussion on
devolution of powers in Ukraine. But he says he would not
negotiate with "terrorists", a formulation meant to exclude
most of the more prominent rebel leaders.
Pashinsky said Ukrainian forces had "destroyed" a separatist
base and checkpoints in a broad operation around Slaviansk
and nearby Kramatorsk in retaliation for attacks on their
"This is not a referendum. This is a desultory attempt by
killers and terrorists to cover their activity," he said.
The rebels in the east and the Kremlin say the pro-European
Kiev government that replaced Yanukovich lacks legitimacy.
Kiev aims to banish such questions by holding a presidential
election on May 25 and the United States and European Union
have threatened Russia with sweeping sanctions if it disrupts
Turchinov, who has ruled the referendum illegal and dismissed
the allegations that the Kiev authorities are neo-fascists,
said on Saturday any move to secession would be "a step into
the abyss" and economic ruin.
The Metinvest company partially owned by Rinat Akhmetov, one
of Ukraine's wealthiest businessmen with interests in the
coal and steel industry in the east, said it was deploying a
volunteer militia in Mariupol with workers from steel plants.
Akhmetov has presented himself as neutral in the conflict and
Metinvest urged Kiev to refrain from sending troops into the
city if his militia maintained order with police.