Ukrainians streamed into polling stations in two restive eastern Ukrainian provinces today to vote in an unofficial referendum to demand independence. The results of the vote, organized by pro-Russian separatists, are all but a foregone conclusion but will mean little in concrete terms beyond deepening the divide between this part of the country and the government in Kiev, further fueling fears of a civil war.
Kiev and Washington have condemned the vote held in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces, calling it a “criminal farce” and “illegal,” respectively. It was arranged hastily and carried out with significant flaws that included outdated voter rolls – making it impossible to determine turnout - and no real mechanism to prevent voters from voting more than once.
In Donetsk, those who turned out were overwhelmingly pro-Russian separatists, while those opposing the vote instead stayed home. Voters presented their passports before being handed ballots asking one question: "Do you support the act of state self-reliance of the Donetsk People's Republic?"
The ambiguous wording left it open to interpretation; some taking it to mean that the province should be more independent from Kiev; others believing it means Donetsk should be its own country; and, still others seeing it as a first step before joining Russia.
“I want to live better and I think it’s a good chance to change something, it’s a good chance to realize what we want to do,” 21 year-old Lutsina told ABC News, not wanting to give her last name. “I want independence but after that we will choose what we want. To be with Russia - if they [will] take us - or stay with Ukraine.”
In the clear Plexiglass boxes containing the ballots at a number of polling stations, it was impossible to spot a single “no” vote. ABC News witnessed several people dropping in more than one ballot and people were allowed to vote for family members.
Just two weeks before a presidential election that is looking increasingly unstable, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry slammed the referendum in a statement as “backed by gang formations, well-schooled and armed by the modern Russian standards."
Violence and bloodshed are growing as Ukraine’s government continues its “anti-terrorist operation” in eastern Ukraine, so far failing to take back most of the towns and buildings occupied by separatists. On Friday, a fire and gunfight at a police station between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces in the coastal town of Mariupol left at least seven dead and dozens wounded.
Ukraine fears that a harsh and bloody crackdown would give Russia a pretext to invade and seize this part of the country, as it did in Crimea in March. Moscow has warned it would intervene to protect Russian speakers here.
Some 40,000 Russian forces have been deployed a short distance from the border with eastern Ukraine, and the Pentagon and NATO reject claims by Russian President Vladimir Putin that the troops have been sent back to their bases.
In a surprise statement last week, Putin called on Sunday’s referendum to be delayed, and showed support for the presidential election later this month. But pro-Russian separatists decided to forge ahead anyway, promising massive turnout and support.
"Even Vladimir Putin, who we respect very much, tried to control the conflict, but the people will decide for themselves,” said Denis Pushilin, the head of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, according to the Associated Press. “For us, the most important thing to show the legitimacy of the referendum is the amount of people who will vote. But for now, we're waiting for the official reaction, particularly from our brothers in Russia."