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A man walked by a poster reading: “Referendum May 11, YES for Donetsk People’s Republic” in Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call on Wednesday for a delay in voting on the referendum was ignored by separatists.

Darko Vojinovic • Associated Press,

A polling station official prepared voting booths in Donetsk, Ukraine.

Manu Brabo • Associated Press,

Separatist votes raise risks in Ukraine

  • Article by: Andrew E. Kramer
  • New York Times
  • May 10, 2014 - 7:01 PM

– Separatist groups in eastern Ukraine are vowing to press ahead with referendums Sunday intended to legitimize two self-declared new countries in Europe — the people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk — though even officials in those places say they are not likely to be long-lived.

Those arranging the vote control a patchwork of roads and public buildings in the two Ukrainian provinces.

The voting poses a risk of escalating the conflict in Ukraine by entrenching the political wings of pro-Russian militant groups, while confronting the government in Kiev with the awkward task of arguing against the conduct of an election, or contesting its results.

“The results will legitimize us before the world community,” Roman Lyagin, chairman of the central election committee of the self-declared Donetsk Republic, said here Saturday.

Lyagin said he had printed 3.1 million ballots that pose one question: “Do you support self-determination for the People’s Republic of Donetsk?” Lyagin said polling will take place in 1,527 sites in hospitals and schools secured by police sympathetic to the cause and volunteers.

Pro-Russian activists in the Luhansk region east of here claimed they had made similar arrangements for a vote.

Voting started early Saturday at one school in Donetsk, for unclear reasons. After armed men threatened to kill a principal in the Luhansk region who did not want voting at her school, the central government said education officials should not take risks to oppose the polling.

The two provinces are predominantly Russian-speaking, though polls indicate only about a third of the population supports annexation by Russia.

Those conducting the plebiscite said it will leave plenty of flexibility for future changes of course.

“We receive the right for self-determination,” Lyagin said. “The next step will be another referendum when we ask, ‘Do we want to join Russia? Or, do we want to join Ukraine? Or do we want to become an independent state?’ There are many possibilities.”

At the news conference, Lyagin again underscored the narrative of the pro-Russian groups here that their movement is grass-roots and that, while embracing the Russian flag as a symbol, it is hardly beholden to Moscow.

The opinion of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who on Wednesday asked the separatists in eastern Ukraine to delay their referendums, was less important than the opinions of residents here, he said.

“We don’t owe anybody anything,” Lyagin said. Billboards went up over the weekend in Donetsk promoting “support for self-rule.”

The pro-Russian groups have occupied administrative buildings in about a dozen towns, control some highways, and have full control over one midsize city, Slov­yansk. Ahead of the referendum in Slov­yansk, the town’s self-appointed mayor, Vyachislav Ponomaryov, sounded a defiant note, assuring people that nothing would stop the vote and predicting, with a gold-toothed smile, turnout of “100 percent.”

According to Ponomaryov, Slovyansk will have 56 polling sites open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and the results are expected by late evening.

“We are completely ready for the referendum,” he said at a news conference Saturday.

“A territorial commission has been created. Necessary spaces, voting booths and ballot boxes have been prepared,” he said. “All organizational questions already have been resolved. Some small nuances remain. But as these small questions arise, we will resolve them. The referendum will happen in any weather.”

Shortly after Ponomaryov’s remarks, a work brigade constructed impromptu voting booths in schools and children’s centers, stapling red drapes to wooden frames. Election employees eagerly awaited the delivery of voter rolls.

While officials admitted that the conditions in the city presented challenges — most pressing, they said, were safety and outdated voting lists — they insisted on the referendum’s importance to citizens in the region.

Those who oppose the Donetsk People’s Republic seem as likely to stay home as vote in a referendum they consider illegitimate.

“It’s as if I declared my back yard sovereign,” said Dmitri Dmitrenko, 22, a supporter of the interim government in Kiev, who was walking his pit bull puppy, Chelsea, on a spring morning. “It has no more legitimacy or historical justification.”

The ideas of the group, he said, “are not part of the contemporary world” but did appeal to older people nostalgic for the Soviet Union who just want “sausage to always cost 2 rubles a kilogram.”

Opponents, he said, “do not appear in public because they don’t want to be hunted down and killed.”

Joking, he said that if trained right, his pit bull would grow up to be “far less dangerous than the people around here.”

© 2014 Star Tribune