Pro-Russia insurgency to hold referendum in east Ukraine despite Putin's call for a delay

  • Article by: PETER LEONARD , Associated Press
  • Updated: May 8, 2014 - 4:50 PM

DONETSK, Ukraine — In an obscure government office guarded by a man in a red T-shirt armed only with a stick, two photocopy machines churned out ballots Thursday for eastern Ukraine's referendum on secession, as they have been doing around the clock for days.

In apparent defiance of a call by Russian President Vladimir Putin to put off the vote, insurgents in eastern Ukraine insisted Thursday they will go ahead with this weekend's referendum as planned.

"Putin is seeking a way out of the situation. We are grateful to him for this," said Denis Pushilin, co-chairman of the Donetsk People's Republic, as the pro-Russian rebels call themselves.

"But we are just a bullhorn for the people," he declared. "We just voice what the people want."

Ukraine has in recent weeks grown perilously polarized, with the west looking toward Europe and the east favoring closer ties with Russia. Thursday's pronouncement was likely to further inflame tensions between the interim government in Kiev that took power amid chaos in February and the armed insurgents, who have seized police stations and government buildings in more than a dozen cities in the east.

Support for the referendum is most pronounced among eastern Ukraine's proudly Russian-speaking working class. Rage against the central government that came to power after months of nationalist-tinged protests is blended with despair at Ukraine's dire economic straits and corruption.

The occasionally violent protests that culminated in President Viktor Yanukovych's fleeing to Russia were viewed by many in the east as a coup and a portent of repression against the region's majority Russian speakers.

"This isn't our government. It's the government of those that destroyed everything," said construction laborer Galina Lukash, 48, who plans to vote in favor of autonomy.

Along with the vote Sunday in the eastern Donetsk region, a similar and even more hastily improvised referendum is to take place in the neighboring Luhansk region. Together they have about 6.5 million people.

The votes are similar to the one in Crimea in March that preceded Russia's annexation of that strategic Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula. Like the one in Crimea, they are regarded as illegitimate by both Kiev and the West.

But unlike the Crimean vote, which was held as Russian soldiers and affiliated local militias held control of the peninsula, the latest votes are being held amid armed conflict. And, critically, unlike Crimea, whose majority Russian-speaking population made approval a foregone conclusion, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have a more mixed population.

A poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center released on Thursday found that 70 percent of the residents of Ukraine's east want the country to maintain its current borders. That suggests Sunday's votes have a chance of failing, if opponents turn out in force and the count is honest.

However, those opposed to the referendum seem likely to ignore it, many out of fear or desperation over the anarchy that has taken grip in eastern Ukraine.

"This is a madhouse. That isn't a particularly literary word, I know, but there is no better way to put it. People are killing one another and we don't know why," said 58-year-old retiree Svetlana Amitina.

"We are remaining quiet, because we are simply afraid for our lives," said Diana Dekatiryova, a university student. "The thought I have is to stay away from the referendum, because nothing will depend on our vote anyway."

Putin's surprise call on Wednesday for the referendum to be put off appears on its surface to reflect Russia's desire to distance itself from the separatists. The West and the Ukrainian government accuse Russia of supporting or outright directing the unrest in the east, while Moscow denies involvement.

"Russia has made it clear it doesn't want the referendum, so it has no obligation to recognize its results, especially if it fails," said Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies think-tank.

Still, the swift decision by the insurgents' councils to go ahead with the vote raised questions about Putin's motive, and whether he was sincere in sounding a conciliatory note. In his remarks on Wednesday, the Russian leader also said Russian troops were being pulled back from the Ukrainian border, where their presence had raised fears that Moscow was looking for a pretext to invade.

However, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said Thursday there had been no evidence of a pullback. "We've seen no change in the Russian force posture along the Ukrainian border," he said.

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