Voters in eastern Ukraine took part in the hastily organized referendums, organized to grant legitimacy to the separatist militias that have taken over cities like Donetsk and Luhansk. The militias have been apparently fueled by hope for re-absorption into the Russian Federation, similar to Crimea. Roman Lyagin, election chief of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, reported that 75% of Donetsk’s residents (about 3 million) cast votes in Sunday’s referendum, claiming that the vast majority supporting self-sovereignty. Of course, with no international monitors present for the elections, it is unclear if this is true. A preliminary vote count was released only 2 hours after polls closed. The vote-counting system was apparently by hand with paper ballots. The Kiev government has already condemned the referendum as a sham.
While the election proceedings yesterday were apparently peaceful, Sunday was preceded by violent incidents on Friday such as the alleged massacre of citizens by the Ukrainian national guard in Mauripol, also located in Eastern Ukraine. Kiev’s Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, said 20 separatists were killed and four were captured during a battle to restore government control the police station. The aforementioned Roman Lyagin was asked by by Putin through televised address to delay the referendum in an effort to defuse the growing conflagration in eastern Ukraine, but all separatist groups refused, saying this was only the first step and the next vote would determine whether sections of eastern Ukraine would return to Russia or not. Lyagin claimed that the referendums were the only way to keep the conflict from escalating into an all-out civil war.
Western leaders have blamed Moscow for encouraging the separatists, with Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande endorsing new sanctions if unrest threatens the tentative May 25 presidential election. Merkel and Hollande in a joint press conference called the referendums illegitimate. How these votes will affect the upcoming presidential election is uncertain.
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