DONETSK, Ukraine -- Rebels in eastern Ukraine are seeking to harness anger at the government with a hastily organized and vaguely worded referendum today that they hope will legitimize their uprising, even if it falls short of giving them a legal mandate to declare an independent state.
With Ukraine perilously close to civil war and drunken mobs rampaging Saturday through the streets of the port city of Mariupol, the separatists say the vote could pave the way for a political solution by showing that the people support their movement.
Yet the vote is equally likely to deepen the divisions that are ripping the country apart. The government in Kiev has denounced the referendum as illegal and unconstitutional, and many observers say it lacks any credibility. Opponents of the pro-Russian separatists who have seized power in eastern Ukraine may decide to boycott a vote they see as rigged.
The language of the referendum leaves plenty of room for interpretation, asking voters whether they support what could be translated either as "independence" or "self-determination" for the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic.
Separatist leaders, who call the government in Kiev illegitimate, say they are not necessarily seeking outright independence or a union with Russia, at least not for the time being.
"A 'yes' vote does not mean that the Donetsk region will become part of Russia, or stay in Ukraine, or become an independent state," Roman Lyagin, the head of the rebel election commission, said at a news conference Saturday.
"It means that we will receive the support of a majority of the inhabitants of the region and the moral right to state that we are not happy with the events in our country and demand changes. We want to choose another path for this region."
Mr. Lyagin's comments could be interpreted as a softening of the rebels' stance, but it is equally likely that the rebels are trying to inspire a wider protest vote against the government to legitimize their uprising. The confusion, in other words, is likely to work in their favor.
While Russia would almost certainly embrace a "yes" vote as a sign of the rebels' popularity, Ukraine's government has been joined by the United States and Western Europe in dismissing the vote.
On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the referendum "illegal," while French President Francois Hollande said it carries "no weight," The Associated Press reported.
The rebels rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin's surprise call last week for the referendum to be postponed, arguing that they would lose popular trust if they did so. Mr. Lyagin said he could go to jail for 10 to 15 years for his role in organizing the vote and suggested that only a mandate from the people could save him.
During their meeting on Saturday, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Hollande, both 59-year-olds but of quite different backgrounds and political beliefs, warned Russia that it would face tough sanctions if it did not help defuse the crisis in Ukraine, including taking "visible steps" to pull back its troops from Ukraine's border. Last week, Mr. Putin said he had already done so, but NATO and Western leaders said they had seen no evidence of a withdrawal.
Above all, the leaders agreed, Ukraine's presidential election May 25 must be allowed to proceed freely and fairly, including in southeastern Ukraine, where armed separatists and pro-Ukrainian forces are locked in violence that has claimed scores of lives in the past two weeks. As a step toward calming tensions, nonmilitary combatants should turn in weapons starting Thursday, said Ms. Merkel, a conservative, and Mr. Hollande, a Socialist. The statement did not explain how Europeans sent to observe and monitor the election could carry out that task.
Mr. Putin "must send more signals of de-escalation, to allow the elections to happen," Ms. Merkel told reporters at a joint news conference in Stalsund, a seaport on Germany's Baltic coast. "Everything else would lead to more steps on the sanctions path."
Opponents of today's referendum are in eastern Ukraine already casting doubt on its legitimacy . Ukrainian news media issued a video and photographs that purported to show three men who had been caught on the outskirts of Slovyansk on Saturday with weapons and a trunk full of ballots already filled in with "yes" votes.
Mr. Lyagin said he is determined to stage a transparent, objective vote and that there will be no foreign observers, apart from journalists, only because no one offered to come.
There are few barriers to fraud. The only list of voters is two years out of date, but one official said that anyone who turns up with a passport will be allowed to vote. The ballots lack any markings that could prevent them from being widely copied. The only people who will be manning the polling stations and counting the votes are the same activists who support a "yes" vote.
The New York Times contributed.