Pro-Russian separatist Alexander Zakharchenko easily won an election for leadership of the Donetsk People's Republic, a breakaway republic in eastern Ukraine, the vote's organizers said Monday.
Sunday's vote, the climax of a six-month separatist rebellion in Ukraine's industrialized east, took place in defiance of Kiev's pro-Western authorities and was certain to worsen the standoff between Russia and the West over the future of the former Soviet republic.
"The central election commission deems Alexander Zakharchenko to be the elected head of the Donetsk People's Republic," Roman Lyagin, an election official, told journalists in Donetsk, the separatists' political and military stronghold in eastern Ukraine.
Zakharchenko, 38, a mining electrician-turned-rebel leader, had received 765,340 votes, Lyagin said. This appeared to represent 79 percent of the vote.
Zakharchenko had said that the elections would pave the way for improving the economy in the region by allowing it to form trade ties, said Al Jazeera's Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Donetsk.
Ukraine's pro-Western president, Petro Poroshenko, denounced the Sunday vote as a "farce (conducted) under the barrels of tanks and machine guns." He said it violated a Sept. 5 agreement that was reached in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, and also signed by Russia.
The United States and the European Union also denounced the vote as illegitimate and in contradiction of the Minsk protocol.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said Monday that newly elected leaders in eastern Ukrainian separatist regions have a "mandate" to negotiate with Kiev, Interfax news agency reported.
"The elected representatives of Donetsk and Luhansk regions obtained a mandate to hold negotiations with central Ukrainian authorities to solve problems ... via a political dialogue," he said. Interfax quoted him as echoing a statement from the Foreign Ministry that Russia will "respect the will of the people of southeast" Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said Monday that Berlin found it “incomprehensible” that “official Russian voices” should recognize the election.
The vote deepens a geopolitical crisis that began with the popular overthrow of a Moscow-backed president in Kiev in February by street protests, sparking Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula the following month.
Russia went on to back the separatist revolt in the east, leading to a conflict in which more than 4,000 people have been killed.
A Sept. 5 ceasefire ended full-scale clashes between government forces and the Russian-backed separatists, though sporadic shelling — particularly in the airport area of Donetsk — continues to exert pressure on the truce.
Artillery fire was heard in the direction of the airport hours after the polling stations closed Sunday night, but Monday was generally quiet in the city center.
Al Jazeera and Reuters