Ukraine rebels vote amid eastern chaos

Referendums condemned, but turnout high in areas

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Snap referendums conducted by secessionists in eastern Ukraine in hopes of legitimizing their cause drew large crowds Sunday and unfolded in a carnival atmosphere that was celebratory in some places and lethally violent in others.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the two provinces where pro-Russian separatists have declared "people's republics," there were balloons and loudspeakers playing Soviet-era songs, and families came to vote with children in tow. But outside the provincial capitals, the voting took place in such a state of raw chaos that in one town a man was shot to death by pro-Ukrainian paramilitaries on a sidewalk outside a polling station.

Separatist organizers of the voting say they would announce their counts late Sunday evening, but the results were a foregone conclusion. At polling stations in Donetsk and Slovyansk, another separatist-controlled city, nearly all the ballots that could be seen in the transparent ballot boxes were marked yes, in favor of losing the province's ties to the national government in Kiev. Many people who favored Ukrainian unity and opposed the separatists said they would stay home rather than cast ballots.

The referendums were roundly condemned from the outset, both in Kiev and internationally, as elections that could not possibly be free and fair, given the political turmoil enveloping the region. But while the results were unlikely to be accepted by anyone but the organizers and their Russian patrons as reflecting the democratic will of the majority, the turnout Sunday appeared to at least demonstrate that the separatists had substantial popular support.

The voting was run in an air of hurried improvisation. Ballots were run off on photocopiers. Propaganda posters supporting secession adorned polling booths in some places, and ballot papers were handed out together with sausage sandwiches to draw voters.

"I am voting because I don't want war," said one participant, Roman Agrisov, a 40-year-old steelworker, as he stood in a line that was three people wide and a hundred yards long, snaking out the door of Middle School No. 32 in Donetsk.

He and some fellow voters said they thought the referendums would deter the authorities in Kiev from pressing military operations to reassert control in the region. Others were less sure whether it would tamp down the unrest or stoke it further, but said they were voting anyway, to reject the interim government in Kiev, which they consider illegitimate.

"We should be part of Russia," said Lisa Batisheva, 26, a nurse who waited in line at School No. 12. "Ukraine is weak, and everybody -- the Europeans and the Russians -- wants something from it. As long as we are part of Ukraine, we will have problems."

It was hard to gauge whether there were lines at the polls because only a few polling stations were open, or because of widespread support. There were no rolls of eligible voters, and only very slight precautions were taken against people voting more than once, a common form of electoral fraud in former Soviet states that is known as "carousel voting."

Tatyana Us, a volunteer election official, referred to the system as "open list" voting. She said officials would compare handwritten lists of people who voted after the polls closed, and would deduct one vote each time they found a person who had voted twice at different polling stations. She did not know whether a yes or no vote would be deducted.

Outside Donetsk the appearance of an election tended to break down. In the town of Krasnoarmiyst, voters filed past a table to pick up a ballot and a sausage sandwich, and completed ballots were dropped into cardboard boxes.

The scene there, while it lasted, was an outpouring of local pride, and of anger at the interim government in Kiev. Crude secessionist propaganda posters hung near the polling station. One depicted a goatlike figure meant to represent the interim president of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchinov, and asked, "Do you want Satan as your president?"

Another referred to rejecting the "European choice for Jews," touching this country's dark currents of hatred and anti-Semitism. Still another depicted a shocking photograph of a skinned human body, with a legend saying that "Globalism prepares people for cannibalism."

But shortly after noon, a pro-Ukrainian volunteer militia backed by Ukrainian army troops who guarded nearby checkpoints swept in and broke up the voting in Krasnoarmiyst, although the organizers managed to carry off the cardboard boxes of ballots.

A commander of the volunteer militia, known as the Dnepr group and hailing from another region more solidly in Ukrainian government control, said his orders were not specifically to stop the voting, but to secure a nearby building.

An angry crowd formed, and one woman yelled, "They are preventing the people from expressing themselves!"

The scene darkened, with the voting already forgotten and a group of local men taunting the militiamen, who took up positions in City Hall and made a show of cocking their Kalashnikov assault rifles. One man in the group who advanced on them, ignoring warning shots over his head, was shot and killed, and another was wounded.

Despite their slapdash nature, the referendums risked escalating the smoldering conflict in Ukraine by giving the political wings of pro-Russian militant groups the opportunity to claim at least the semblance of a popular mandate, while presenting the authorities in Kiev with the awkward problem of seeming to defy the voters.

After weeks of unrest in the east, pro-Russian groups occupy administrative buildings in about a dozen towns, control some highways, and have full control over one midsize city, Slovyansk. The voting there was orderly Sunday, with crowds at some polling places in the morning. But the turnout seemed to thin by early afternoon, and with only a few hours of balloting left, the lists of those who had voted suggested that the turnout in the city was relatively light, perhaps 30 percent of residents or less.

Government security forces occupy positions around the city, and there was an outbreak of fighting on the outskirts overnight. It was not clear exactly what had been attacked.

A State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said the United States would not recognize the results of the referendums, whatever they were. She said they were "illegal under Ukrainian law and are an attempt to create further division and disorder."


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here