Citizens of the Eastern Ukrainian province Donetsk, along with their neighbors in Luhansk, stood in line on Sunday to cast their vote on whether to support the central government in Kyiv, or join their pro-Russian compatriots in voting to gain more autonomy in the first step to possibly joining the Russian Federation. Even though many have already predicted an outcome where the separatists prevail, nobody actually knows what that will mean for Ukraine and the region.
Unlike the referendum in Crimea in March, in which the province voted to break away and join the Russian Federation, the votes in Donetsk and Luhansk are taking place in a climate that isn’t nearly as pro-Russian. A poll released several days ago from Pew Research showed that the majority of those surveyed in eastern Ukraine, though at much lower numbers than in the country’s west, would prefer to stay a part of a single, unified country. Despite that, even though as the BBC reports there were several polling stations lacking voting booths and election registers, separatists were intent to hold today’s vote. Other regions in the Russian-leaning east chose to forgo their own votes.
It seems that even the separatists holding the vote have no idea what the end goal is.
“With voting still going on, one separatist leader said the region would form its own state bodies and military after the referendum,” Reuters reported from the region. But another leader, on the other hand, “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.” BuzzFeed’s Mike Giglio, on the ground in Donetsk, likewise reported that many of the organizers seemed intent on carrying off the referendum first and worrying about the consequences later.
With no international observers on the ground, there’s no way of knowing just how many irregularities took place during the time ballots were being cast. Reporters around the country noted several oddities, including one woman apparently casting two ballots simultaneously. Ukrainian authorities also reportedly seized a number of ballots that were pre-marked “yes” early on Sunday.
The United States and other western countries continued to denounce the decision to hold the referendum, instead calling on Ukrainians to look ahead to the May 25 presidential elections to replace ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. “As the United States has said, the referenda being planned for May 11 in portions of eastern Ukraine by armed separatist groups are illegal under Ukrainian law and are an attempt to create further division and disorder,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. “If these referenda go forward, they will violate international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The United States will not recognize the results of these illegal referenda.”
Adding to the confused nature of the referendum is the lack of public support from Russian president Vladimir Putin, who surprised many on Wednesday by calling for the separatists to hold their referendums at a later date. Psaki said the United States is “disappointed that the Russian government has not used its influence to forestall these referenda since President Putin’s suggestion on May 7 that they be postponed,” adding that Russian media continues to support the referendum without mentioning Putin’s call for a postponement.
Results from the voting won’t be released until Monday, but pro-Russians are already declaring victory, even as the heavy fighting between remarkably well-armed pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian security forces has marked the lead-up to today’s balloting continued. The death toll has continued to rise as gun battles between the two sides increase, including a clash in the city of Krasnoarmeisk, near Donetsk, in which Ukrainian security forces appear to have opened fired into a crowd. Hours earlier, the national guard had broken up the referendum voting in the town, only to later fire shots at the crowd that had assembled outside the town hall.