Pro-Russian groups hailed a large majority in favor of secession in a referendum they organized in eastern Ukraine that was dismissed as illegitimate by the government in Kiev and its U.S. and European allies.
Voters in Donetsk backed the breakaway plan by 90 percent to 10 percent, RIA Novosti reported late yesterday, citing Roman Liagin, head of the election committee. In Luhansk, the other region voting, turnout was 75 percent and the outcome wasn’t initially clear, RIA said. Final results are due later today.
The votes went ahead amid violent clashes between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels that continued in the region yesterday, and in the face of condemnation from Ukraine, the U.S. and the European Union, who all said the referendums were illegal. Russian President Vladimir Putin, accused by Kiev and its allies of stoking the separatist unrest, had also publicly called for a delay.
A similar vote preceded Putin’s seizure of Crimea in March, a month after his ally in Kiev, President Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted in a popular uprising. The growing tension in eastern Ukraine reflects concerns that Russia may be plotting another land grab.
NATO says that there are about 40,000 Russian troops near the border. There’s no sign Putin is fulfilling a pledge to withdraw them, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a television interview broadcast yesterday.
Ukraine, which plans to hold presidential elections on May 25, has deployed its army to reassert its authority in the eastern regions after pro-Russian groups seized government offices.
Soldiers fired on a crowd in the town of Krasnoarmiysk in the Donetsk region yesterday, leaving at least one person dead, Ukrayinska Pravda reported on its website.
Serhiy Pashynskyi, a top aide to Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said earlier yesterday that the army had killed “many” rebels holding buildings and roads in eastern cities. There have also been bloody clashes in Slovyansk, and in the port city of Mariupol last week.
The Ukraine crisis has revived Cold War hostilities, with the U.S. and its European allies imposing sanctions on Russia and threatening to escalate them.
John Boehner, the U.S. House speaker, said yesterday that penalties should be broadened to include Russian banks. The EU has said it might announce new sanctions as soon as tomorrow on Russian companies that seized assets in Crimea after it was annexed. French President Francois Hollande said tougher measures should be imposed if Russian interference prevents the May 25 Ukraine election from taking place.
Russia’s stocks and currency have plunged this year on expectations such measures will hurt the economy. They pared losses last week after Putin signaled he may cut back Russia’s military presence on the border and softened opposition to the Ukrainian election.
The ruble gained 1.7 percent against the dollar last week, the most since September. The MICEX Index jumped 5.1 percent. The Ukrainian hryvnia fell 0.5 percent, and has slid almost 30 percent this year.
The referendums underscore a divide between a minority community identifying with Russian heritage, and other Ukrainians who want the country to stay whole and strengthen its ties with the EU.
The organizers don’t have access to the regions’ official electoral registers or other voting infrastructure. Pashynskyi said no voting had taken place in most areas of the two provinces. He called the referendum “a poor attempt by terrorists, criminals and killers to hide their actions.”
In Donetsk, Peter Bobrovsky, an unemployed man, said he was voting for independence because “the authorities in Kiev hate us.”
“I want to live in Russia, speak Russian,” he said. “Now we will be free and we will join Russia. And Ukraine can go to the West, but without us.”
Also in Donetsk, Ruslan Khalikov, a 27-year-old graduate student, said he wouldn’t take part because the vote is “stupid” and illegitimate.
“Somebody printed some papers with some questions -- so what?,” he said. “I can hold the same referendum in my yard with my friends.”
A study by the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of respondents in eastern Ukraine, where Russian is widely spoken, and 93 percent in the west wanted the country to remain unified within current borders.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has announced plans for national reconciliation talks to start on May 14, though it’s not clear who will take part. Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have urged armed groups to surrender their weapons to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which may play a role in the mediation.