Ukraine leaders denounce independence poll as ‘a farce’
Ukraine has condemned a rebel referendum in eastern regions that its pro-Russian organisers claim gives them the right to split from the country.
According to partial results, 89 per cent of voters in the Donetsk region and about 96 per cent of those in the neighbouring Luhansk province voted for independence.
The mood at polling stations yesterday was overwhelmingly in favour of sovereignty, but turnout figures – of well over 70 per cent in both regions – are more suspect. Previous surveys suggested far less support for a split from Ukraine, and most opponents of such a move simply refused to take part in the ballot.
“The farce that terrorist separatists call a referendum is nothing more than propaganda to cover up murders, kidnappings, violence and other serious crimes,” Ukraine’s interim president Oleksandr Turchinov told parliament in Kiev today.
The only “legal effect” of the vote would be the eventual prosecution of its organisers, he added.
Ukraine’s leaders and the west believe Moscow is stoking and orchestrating much of the unrest in the east, to destabilise the country, prevent its new government functioning normally, and disrupt May 25th presidential elections.
Russian president Vladimir Putin last week called on the separatists to postpone their vote, but Kiev dismissed his appeal as a cynical attempt feign distance from the rebels and give the impression that they are not being influenced by Moscow.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Mr Putin would judge the referendum “on its results” and claimed that despite the president’s authority it was hard to make the rebels listen amid a government “anti-terrorist” operation in the east.
“Considering that real military action is being conducted, people were forced to act according to their own plan and the real situation.”
The self-proclaimed leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, said he and his allies must move quickly to cement their authority.
“Now, in so far as we have already taken responsibility into our own hands, it is essential to as quickly as possible form organs of state power and military power,” he said.
“Any military formations located on our territory after the official announcement of the referendum results will be regarded as illegal and declared to be occupiers,” he added.
Other leading figures in the DPR said there would be no rush to independence, and that the referendum simply asserted the right of Donetsk and Luhansk to decide whether to declare sovereignty or to join Russia, or remain part of Ukraine.
Isolated clashes between government forces and armed separatist groups continued around the region yesterday, and one unarmed civilian was reported to have been shot dead in the town of Krasnoarmeysk, outside the city of Donetsk.
Video shows a man announcing to people in Krasnoarmeysk that he and his armed group are part of the “Dnepr” unit of the government’s national guard, and one of his men later allegedly shot dead a local man.
But today the interior ministry in Kiev denied that the Dnepr unit was in the area, and suggested the killing had been set up to discredit government forces.
For months, Russia’s state media have bombarded the country’s people, and residents of largely Russian-speaking southern and eastern Ukraine, with portrayals of the Kiev authorities as Russophobic “fascists” backed by roaming bands of neo-Nazi killers.
Law and order across parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions have broken down, with police refusing to act against separatists and their supporters and sometimes joining their ranks, amid a proliferation of shadowy armed groups.
Many people in the east angrily reject the authority of the new government, which was formed when Donetsk-born former president Viktor Yanukovich and his allies from eastern regions fled Ukraine after deadly protests in February.
Voters were out in significant numbers in Donetsk yesterday, with almost all of them declaring support for independence.
“I’m sure we can survive as an independent state,” said a retired teacher, Tatyana, at a polling station in Donetsk.
“If we joined with the EU our economy would be destroyed, what we make is not right for their markets,” she said of Donetsk’s coalmines and heavy industry.
“Many people here don’t care if we are with Ukraine or Russia – but almost everyone does not want to be with this government in Kiev.”
The conduct of the ballot was chaotic in places.
In Mariupol, a city of 500,000 people, long queues formed because only four polling stations were operating. Anti-Kiev sentiment was strong in the city, where as many as 21 people were killed on Friday.
Critics expected a crude fix from a referendum arranged in just a few weeks, by separatists who control only isolated parts of a large region of more than 3 million voters. No independent observers monitored the poll and no measures were in place to stop people voting as often as they wished in different places.