Ukraine was sliding quickly toward further fracture Sunday, as pro-Russian separatists in this southeastern region said they would form their own government and army after winning an overwhelming mandate to declare independence from Kiev.
“It turned out to be extremely easy to count the votes, as the number of people who voted against was extremely low,” Roman Lyagin, who oversaw Sunday’s referendum for the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. He claimed 89 per cent had voted in favour of “an act of independence” by this Russian-speaking region, versus 10 per cent who voted against.
The referendum – along with a parallel vote in the neighbouring region of Lugansk – was condemned in advance by the Ukrainian government and its allies in the West. But the rebel leadership, with clear support from Russia, said they would move now to form their own government and army. Denis Pushilin, a leader of the pro-Russian separatists, said before the result was announced that any Ukrainian troops that didn’t leave Donetsk after the referendum would be considered “occupiers.”
Separatist forces have already been battling the Ukrainian army, as well as pro-government militias, for weeks. At least one pro-Russian demonstrator was killed Sunday in the city of Krasnoarmeysk, northwest of the city of Donetsk, when members of the National Guard seized control of City Hall in an apparent attempt to prevent the referendum from taking place there.
Ukraine called Sunday’s vote “a criminal farce” that had been “inspired, organized, and financed by the Kremlin.” Foreign Minister John Baird rejected the referendum as illegitimate, saying Canada would only recognize Ukraine’s national election on May 25.
The United States and several European countries also poured scorn on the vote. “Figures from fake referendums in Eastern Ukraine likely to be fake. No way of knowing even turnout,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on his Twitter account.
The result in Lugansk wasn’t known as of Sunday night. Separatist officials said voter turnout was just under 75 per cent in Donetsk, and approaching 80 per cent in Lugansk.
That seemed at odds with the situation at polling stations in the city of Donetsk, where only a trickle of voters were visible in the height of the afternoon. Yelena Shinkareva, a member of the election commission in central Donetsk, claimed at one point that 40 per cent of 62,000 eligible voters in her district had cast their ballots in the first four hours that voting booths were open.
That would be a staggering 103 voters per minute, or more than a vote per second.
The Western protests were ignored in the Donetsk People’s Republic, which will be born a lawless mini-state, a place where masked gunmen take journalists, politicians and aid workers hostage seemingly at random, and where locals wonder when the Russian army will come to “protect” them. Sunday’s referendum was directed from inside Donetsk’s seized regional government building, which is surrounded by a crude fort and a wall of tires topped with razor wire.
No one knows for certain what the separate declarations of independence by Donetsk and Lugansk will mean. Even as votes were being cast Sunday, there was talk of another referendum in the near future, this one on whether to remain in Ukraine or to apply to join Russia.
Russia, after seeming to take a step away from the separatists last week – when President Vladimir Putin called for a postponement of Sunday’s vote – actively aided on referendum day, setting up an absentee voting centre in Moscow so thousands of Donetsk and Lugansk residents living there could cast their ballots. Russian state media gave fawning coverage to the separatists and their supporters, while condemning the Ukrainian army for pressing ahead with military operations during the voting.
Those that did turn out to vote on Sunday were almost uniformly in favour of breaking away from the government in Kiev. They said they did so out of anger with the government in Kiev – which they accused of launching a war against Donetsk instead of responding to demands for more autonomy – and to protect their right to speak Russian instead of Ukrainian.
“I’m against the illegitimate, fascist authorities which are now in Kiev. They’ve created the conditions where we have no choice but to declare ourselves independent,” said Natalya Tokar, a 40-year-old unemployed accountant. She said she hoped other Russian-speaking parts of southern and eastern Ukraine would join Donetsk and Lugansk in rejecting the government in Kiev. “We’re already in a war. An unofficial, undeclared war.”
It was a theme repeated by almost everyone who voted. The referendum ballot boxes were transparent, and of the dozens of ballots viewed by The Globe and Mail, all were marked “Da” in favour of the declaration of independence, against a solitary visible “Nyet.”
Most Donetsk residents who want the region to remain part of Ukraine stayed away from the polling stations Sunday.
“This referendum doesn’t mean anything. Not one country in the world will accept it,” said Dmitry Pavlov, a 28-year-old who strolled through the city wearing a Franz Kafka T-shirt in a highbrow act of dissent. “The authorities decided two weeks ago that the result would be 89 per cent,” he said 12 hours before the results were announced. “So they don’t need us to vote.”
Mr. Pavlov said many of Donetsk’s younger generation were angry about the referendum, and often in conflict with parents and grandparents who feel drawn to Russia and nostalgic for the Soviet Union. Mr. Pavlov said he would remain in the city for now, but move elsewhere if Russian troops were to arrive.
Many of his friends were pondering the same thing, he said. “People are deciding what their Rubicon line is, after which point they will take their things and leave.”