Over the weekend, citizens in two east Ukrainian regions overwhelmingly voted to become independent in a referendum that only the Kremlin seems to be on board with. Separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk report that 89 percent and 96 percent, respectively, said they wanted to break free of Kiev's authority.
While that number may seem suspiciously high, that doesn't mean the vote was necessarily rigged — only the people pushing for self-rule actually participated. Most considered it a sham, even illegal, and few people outside of Moscow plan to honor the results.
That isn't to say the vote was completely on the up-and-up, either. The vote was hampered by obvious signs of corruption, per BBC correspondents, who reported what they saw this week:
- Anyone could vote in any polling station in the region simply by scribbling their name on a piece of paper, they say
- The BBC filmed a woman casting two ballots
- One pro-Ukraine teacher said she received death threats after refusing to let rebels use her school as a polling station
It also flies in the face of a Pew Research poll, published last week, which found that the majority of Ukrainians — even in the east — are in favor of staying united.
The Kremlin responded favorably to the vote in a statement issued on Monday, calling for a peaceful implementation of the results:
We condemn the use of force, including of heavy weapons against civilians ... in Moscow, we respect the will of the people of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and are counting on practical implementation of the outcome of the referendum in a civilized manner, without any repeat of violence and through dialogue.
Other international leaders, on the other hand, did not take as kindly to the results in Donetsk and Luhansk. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the results of the vote "can't be taken seriously," and his Swedish counterpart called them "fake figures from a fake referendum." The EU, in fact, declared the referendum illegal.
Ukraine's standing President Oleksandr Turchynov commented that the vote had no credibility, saying "the farce that terrorist separatists call a referendum is nothing more than propaganda to cover up murders, kidnappings, violence and other serious crimes." Turchynov also, again, blamed Russia for stirring unrest in the region:
These processes are inspired by the leadership of the Russian Federation and are destructive to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions' economies, threaten the lives and welfare of citizens and have the aim of destabilizing the situation in Ukraine, disrupting (May 25) presidential elections and overthrowing Ukrainian authorities.
Now, the EU is mulling stronger sanctions against Russia if Ukraine's upcoming election, to replace interim officials in Kiev, is undermined by the referendum. In the words of UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, "it's very important for us to demonstrate that we are ready for... more far reaching sanctions depending on Russia's attitude towards the elections on May 25."
Breaking: EU confirms new targeted sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. http://t.co/tYCeEMbSEk— Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) May 12, 2014
Meanwhile, the region remains riddled with unrest. One man was killed during the vote, and a Russian journalist was reportedly briefly held overnight in Donetsk before being released:
@nycjim Pavel is already freed, he was questioned and beaten because of his piece on the referendum; kidnappers took his money and notebook— Feldman (@EvgenyFeldman) May 12, 2014
And according to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, rebel groups attempted to take over a television tower at the edge of Sloviansk, though tension in the port city of Mariupol might finally be easing. The saga continues next week, when Donetsk and Luhansk will hold a second referendum to see if voters want to join Russia. Then on May 25, the nation will hold new presidential elections, a moment that could prove decisive in the conflict.
Update: 10:55 a.m.: The leaders of Donetsk's separatist movement has reportedly asked that the region be allowed to join Russia, after declaring that the referendum makes Donetsk an independent republic.