Ukraine Regions Hold Sovereignty Vote
Voters in eastern Ukraine formed long lines at the polls in a twin referendum on sovereignty for two heavily populated industrial regions Sunday, amid warnings from the central government that the balloting was illegal and was being bankrolled by Moscow.
At issue was the status of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where pro-Russian insurgents have seized government buildings and clashed with police and Ukrainian troops over the past month.
Ukraine's acting president warned that independence for eastern regions would destroy the country's economy.
"This is a step into the abyss for the regions," Oleksandr Turchynov said on the presidential website Saturday.
But the head of the referendum organizers in Donetsk said approval of the question wouldn't immediately lead to attempts to split off from the country. He characterized the voting as an effort to show the central government that the largely Russian-speaking east has legitimate concerns.
"We want only to state our right to self-determination," election commission head Roman Lyagin said. "After the announcement of the results, absolutely nothing will change in the status of the Donetsk region. We won't stop being part of Ukraine. We won't become part of Russia. We are just saying to the world that we want changes, we want to be heard."
However, he said that the ultimate status of the region would be discussed later, and includes the possibility of secession or the seeking of annexation by Russia.
Polling stations were scheduled to close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT), and results were not expected to be announced until Monday afternoon.
There were reports of only sporadic clashes across the sprawling regions of 6.5 million people, and referendum organizers said they expected high turnout.
Insurgents in the city of Slovyansk, which has seen some of the most violent clashes in recent weeks, exchanged fire with Ukrainian troops on the outskirts of the city overnight. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said a soldier was wounded in a mortar shelling.
The Ukrainian government and the West have accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest in the east, with the goal of destabilizing Ukraine or finding a pretext for invasion.
Russia — which annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula just days after voters there approved secession in a March referendum — has rejected the accusations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had asked the organizers of the latest referendums to delay the vote in an apparent attempt to ease the worst crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War. The insurgents refused to heed his call.
"For us, the most important thing to show the legitimacy of the referendum is the amount of people who will vote," said Denis Pushilin, a co-chairman of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. "But for now, we're waiting for the official reaction, particularly from our brothers in Russia."
Election organizers said turnout topped 70 percent by late afternoon, but with no international election monitors in place, it was all but impossible to confirm such claims.
At one polling station at a school in Donetsk, turnout was brisk in the first hour of voting. All voting slips that could be seen in the clear ballot boxes showed that autonomy had been selected.
Most opponents of sovereignty appeared likely to stay away from the polls rather than risk drawing attention to themselves.
Darya, a 25-year-old medical worker who would not give her last name, said she saw no reason to cast a ballot, since the vote had no legal force.
"There were no notices about this referendum anywhere, about where and when it was happening," she said. "In any case, it is not valid, so there was no reason to take part."
Although there were no immediate signs of any outright intimidation on Sunday and insurgents near the polls were not wearing their usual balaclavas, the regions have been on edge for weeks.
Many of those who did vote said they hoped the balloting would help stabilize the situation.
"I just don't have the words to express what is happening in our country," said Liliya Bragina, 65. "I have come so that there will be stability, so that there will be peace."
The haphazard nature of the referendums was in full display at Spartak, a leafy village on the fringes of Donetsk.
Villagers were unable to vote for about three hours after the polls opened because election officials failed to bring a ballot box.
After some arguing between local people and the head of the village council, an election organizer arrived with a voting urn crudely fashioned from cardboard boxes and sealed with tape.
Most present said they were voting in favor of autonomy and against the interim government. One said she would not take part in a nationwide presidential election set for May 25.
"I don't agree with what is happening in the country. And I want some changes for the better. What is happening on May 25 is not honest, truthful or in our best interests. And that is why I am voting today," said Irina Zelyonova, 30, cradling her baby in her arms.
Turchynov and Ukraine's caretaker government came to power in February following the ouster of Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych after months of protests in Kiev.
Moscow and many in Ukraine's east have accused the new government of intending to trample the rights of eastern Ukraine's Russian-speakers.
More than 30 people have been reported killed since Ukrainian forces began trying to retake some eastern cities from the insurgents.
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