Highlights: 3 things you need to know now
- Luhansk's regional governor said referendum failed. “Luhansk Oblast has said firmly 'No!' to the illegal 'referendum.'”
- Huge crowds show up at polling stations in Donetsk region.
- Some people were allowed to vote without identification, and other reportedly voted multiple times.
DONETSK, Ukraine — As the sun rose early Sunday morning over the slag heaps that dot this industrial region, separatist leaders were still hammering away on hastily erected voting booths in which residents of Donetsk would soon cast ballots in a haphazard referendum on seceding from Ukraine and creating a new, quasi-independent republic.
Ballot boxes used in past presidential elections and adorned with the Ukrainian crest were redecorated with the separatist flag of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.” In at least one centrally-located Donetsk office, volunteers frantically stacked and sorted printed explainers and poorly photocopied ballots that asked: "Do you support the act of state sovereignty of the Donetsk People's Republic?" Voters could chose between just two options: “Yes” or “No.”
They did so in defiance of interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov, who called it “illegal” and warned that it would be a “step into the abyss.” Perhaps their most prominent backer, Russian President Vladimir Putin, recommending earlier in the week that the referendum be postponed.
Donbas residents swarm polling stations across east #Ukraine to vote in referendum (PHOTOS) http://t.co/mAdEnhyiJP pic.twitter.com/Y7EtPDj9Nr
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) May 11, 2014
The vote comes as Ukraine teeters on the precipice of civil war and while pro-Russian separatists occupy more than 25 government buildings of strategic importance in more than a dozen eastern Ukrainian cities across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. They have engaged in all-out gun battles in recent weeks with Ukraine’s armed forces, who have tried to purge them from the buildings and stop preparations for Sunday’s referendum.
The latest gunfight broke out overnight on Sunday in Sloviansk, where armed Kremlin-backed rebels clashed with Ukrainian forces in an attempt to capture the city’s TV tower, apparently in a bid to control programming on referendum day. Residents and journalists based in the city heard several explosions and bursts of gunfire throughout the night.
On Sunday morning, the shootout reportedly kept many there away from voting booths. Ukrainian online news website Insider reported that less than a third of residents had cast their ballots in Sloviansk by midday.
In Mariupol, the eastern port city on the Sea of Azov where separatists clashed with Ukrainian armed forces last Friday, leaving at least seven dead, there were only eight polling stations for the city’s almost half a million people. Lines stretched for blocks as people waited to vote at makeshift outdoor polling stations.
One Mariupol resident Mashable spoke with on Saturday, a factory worker, said he had been “on the fence” about how he’d vote in the referendum. But after the violence, during which several unarmed people were shot and seriously injured, he said he was “absolutely voting ‘Yes’” on Sunday.
“I think after the killings we are 90 percent to 10 percent in favor of the referendum [to secede from Ukraine],” he added.
Briefly, the city council building there caught fire, reportedly after being struck by Molotov cocktails. Fireman doused the building in flames, but it continued to smolder through the afternoon.
Meanwhile, throngs of people flocked to the nearly 3,000 polling stations elsewhere in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions to cast their votes in the slapdash referendum arranged by separatist activists with no prior experience, a handful of Xerox machines for printing ballots and two-year-old voter lists. The whole operation, their volunteers told Mashable, cost less than $2,000.
Huge crowds at polling stations in #Donetsk. No order, total chaos. Referendum organizer Mikhail sweating profusely. pic.twitter.com/Wr7wtUrIwz
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) May 11, 2014
No security markings adorned the ballots, making them vulnerable to manipulation and fraud. Also, no international observers were present to confirm the legitimacy of the referendum.
But that didn’t mean the vote couldn’t be fair, according to the separatists’ head election official, Roman Liahin, a 33-year-old former advisor to the ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. “Anyone who wants to observe the referendum can do so,” he said in an interview with Mashable. “That’s free and fair.”
However, in an interview with Reuters, Liahin confessed that the referendum was illegal. “Okay, it's not really in line with the law, but I think that's the only way out,” the news agency quoted him as saying.
Turnout in Donetsk Region had already exceeded 30 percent by midday, Liahin told Russian state news agency ITAR-TASS, calling it “off the charts.”
“We think that by around midday, this figure may be about 35 percent, but we are expecting things to really pick up towards the evening.”
Polling stations visited by Mashable in Donetsk teemed with people. Several people, however, expressed confusion and said they believed the vote was not for independence, but for more autonomy within greater Ukraine.
Most ballots seen in the clear ballot boxes showed “yes” votes. But two “no” votes stuck out like sore thumbs. Commenting on one visible “no” ballot, a middle-aged woman with bouffant hair grumbled, “Foo!” and scrunched her face.
With lines snaking out the school’s doors, many opted simply to check their ballots on windowsills and against walls before dropping them into ballot boxes. Mashable observed several voters casting ballots without presenting passports to referendum organizers, in violation of all election norms. Moreover, several instances of people voting multiple times were reported by local news website Novosti Donbass, which also said that one of its reporters had voted three times in the referendum and would continue to vote “no” as many times as he would be allowed.
Several acts of intimidation were also reported. Novosti Donbass said that its reporters witnessed referendum officials tearing apart those ballots marked with “no,” while several foreign photojournalists told Mashable that at the polling station inside Donetsk’s School No. 1 two men with a pistol and shotgun stormed in and ordered media to stop filming and photographing the voting process. They left after a few minutes and without further incident.
A referendum organizer named Mikhail told Mashable at the polling station inside Donetsk’s School No. 17 that more than 50 percent of voters had come out by 3 p.m. local time. Voting is due to end tonight at 10 p.m. local time and officials say they expect a the total turnout “will be around 70 percent and preliminary results will be announced a few hours after the polls close.” Liahin said he expected a final tally of the votes sometime on Monday and that the results can’t be challenged.
Meanwhile, in Luhansk Oblast, the referendum has failed, according to interim regional governor Iryna Verygina. In a statement on the regional administration's website, Verygina said, "We can strongly state now that Luhansk Oblast has said firmly 'No!' to the illegal 'referendum' of so called 'Luhansk People's Republic.'" She said that most people in the region were boycotting the vote, while others turned out to cast votes of "no" to separating from Ukraine.
The continuing turmoil that has engulfed the Luhansk region and led to a steep rise in criminal activity, there, has had a profound effect on the population, Verygina added. In recent weeks, the region has been plagued by looting, armed robberies and brutal murders.
But no matter the outcome, Kiev as well as the West already condemned the referendum as illegitimate.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in the weeks leading up to the referendum said they would not recognize the results. They also have not recognized the results of a similar referendum held in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March that led to the Kremlin bringing it into its fold. Germany and other European Union nations have expressed similar sentiments. All have slapped Russia with sanctions against high-ranking officials and business entities for Moscow's role in fomenting unrest in Ukraine and for its support of the secession vote in Crimea while under control of Russian soldiers.
In a statement issued on Saturday, State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki reiterated the U.S. position, saying, “As the United States has said, the referenda being planned for May 11 in portions of eastern Ukraine by armed separatist groups are illegal under Ukrainian law and are an attempt to create further division and disorder. If these referenda go forward, they will violate international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The United States will not recognize the results of these illegal referenda.”