International
Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

Pro-Russian rebels hail turnout in autonomy vote

Hundreds of thousands went to the polls to support a poll hastily organized by activists

DONETSK, Ukraine — By lunchtime on Sunday, the all-female volunteer team at Donetsk’s Polling Station No. 1 had declared Sunday’s referendum vote on regional sovereignty for the Donetsk People’s Republic to be a jubilant success.

Although official results will not be released for another three days, according to the leaders of the pro-Russia rebel group organizing the referendum, volunteers like Galina Gryukonova were confident as they broke for lunch midday Sunday that turnout had been strong.

“We are very happy, we are freeing ourselves from those fascists running Kyiv who do not understand our culture, our heroes and our mentality,” the retiree said, as she shared a lunch of cucumbers, tomatoes and fresh, homemade yogurt with her fellow volunteers. "Anyone who has a Ukrainian passport can come to us to register immediately, and vote to protect our freedom and human rights."

Despite sharp warnings from the central government in Kyiv that a referendum vote on regional sovereignty would “destroy” the industrial east of Ukraine, hundreds of thousands like Gryukonova went to the polls Sunday to support a poll hastily organized by pro-Russian rebels who have seized dozens of government buildings across the east.

Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said the vote would not be recognized by the central government regardless of the outcome. Western governments, including the United States, have also discredited the activists’ independence poll and have accused Russia of inciting unrest in the East just weeks after orchestrating a similar referendum in Crimea. Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula, and there are worries that the eastern part of the country could go the same way.

The ballot asked voters if they support the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which would include the Donetsk and Luhansk region, home to Ukraine’s heavy industries and coal mines. The rebels vowed strong turnout, which would give the people’s republic the mandate to determine if they will remain part of Ukraine or ask to be annexed by Russia.

“More than anything, this is a big sociological survey of our people, and we are seeing that a huge number are ready to come out to vote for our independence,” said Sergei Butonovsky, a volunteer in the pro-Russia movement. Butonovsky, 30, is the author of several books on the eastern region of Donbas and its historical relationship with Russia.

“The large turnout will show Turchynov and the rest of Kyiv that they must stop this anti-terrorist operation that has already killed our people mercilessly,” he said.

Kyiv has had mixed success trying to fight off the pro-Russia separatists in last two weeks as rebel-held areas have sunk deeper into lawlessness. Ukraine’s underfunded and inexperienced army has teamed up with National Guard units and “self-defense” teams in seemingly random offensives, that have left hundreds wounded and dozens dead on each side. The anti-terrorist operations have inflamed anger among eastern Ukrainians, who accuse the Western-leaning central government of being a “junta” made up of fascists determined to rid the country of Russian speakers.

The region is also the political base and homeland of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in February after months of anti-government protests resulted in his impeachment.

Poll workers at Polling Station No. 1 allowed journalists — who were asked previously to get accredited with the Donetsk People’s Republic — to peer inside the large, clear plastic ballot boxes containing a stack of paper ballots about 6 inches thick. All of them appeared to be marked “Da” in support of the referendum question.

Just want the referendum’s result will mean remains unknown, even among those that supported it. Some voters said they support more regional autonomy within Ukraine as long as the central government agrees to federalization of the country. Others said they want separation from Kyiv and eventual annexation by Russia.

“I want the Donetsk People’s Republic to be an independent country and completely free of those fascists in Kyiv,” said Irina Mironova, another volunteer poll worker. “Maybe it will be difficult at first, but we see no choice after Kyiv has attacked us.”

Mironova said she saw the violent events on May 2 in the southern port city of Odessa as a turning point in the now six-month long political crisis that has left this country of 46 million deeply divided, with western and central Ukrainians looking toward a future with Europe, and eastern Ukrainians hoping for closer ties to Russia.

More than 40 people died in Odessa last week after groups of pro-unity Ukrainians and pro-Russia separatists clashed in the city center. Both sides had casualties, but voters on Sunday repeatedly accused the “nationalist” pro-unity mobs of attacking what they said were peaceful protesters trying to protect their Russian heritage

“For me, I don’t care which country I live in — Russia, Ukraine or an independent Donbas,” said Tatiana, a retired English teacher who declined to give her last name for fear that she would be targeted by ultranationalists groups, such as the radical Right Sector. “But not in a Ukraine with those fascists and killers.”

The spritely pensioner had come to the polling station set up at a school in central Donetsk with her granddaughter and three small dogs. She said she was eager to practice her English with several foreign journalists and described what she said had been several days of very frightening images on television about Ukrainian operations against ethnic Russians in the east.

“You see? This is real. We have lines to get in to the voting station. We all want something different here,” Tatiana said.

Still, despite predictions from the Donetsk People’s Republic that the referendum would get 89 percent to 91 percent approval, many eastern Ukrainians said they would not vote.

“Of course they will get those results, because anyone who goes to the polls and thinks this is legitimate is going to say yes,” said Dmitry Pavlov, who works in the coal sales business in Donetsk.

“Anyone who would vote ‘no’ won’t go to the polls today, because they know it’s a bogus referendum,” he said.

The problems in eastern Ukraine are caused by a deep generational divide, with “anyone under the age of 50” understanding that a referendum was not a vote for independence, but a vote for Soviet nostalgia, which runs deep in the Donbas, Pavlov, said. During the Soviet Union, he said, the region’s coal miners and industrial workers were treated with respect as their output was contributing to the creation of the communist ideal. That ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.

“Here you have older people who haven’t ever see Europe, in fact, most of them haven’t even been to western Ukraine or visited Kyiv in the last 10 years,” Pavlov said. “They are still living in 1989, and they don’t want change.”

For Aleksey Maksimchuk, a businessman who owns a network of gas stations in the eastern city of Yanakiyivo, former President Yanukovych’s hometown, the regional divisions are very frustrating, especially since neither side seems to be listening to each other, nor so far, the interim government has done nothing but talk, he said.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and acting President Turchynov have both called a national dialogue aimed at defusing the crisis. In addition, parliament is working on constitutional reform that would decentralize power and allow regions the ability to give the Russian language special status, a key complaint among pro-Russia separatists, the central government has said.

It may be too little, too late, Maksimchuk said. 

“I’m for a united Ukraine, but one with a strong government,” Maksimchuk, 47, said.

“I supported Maidan when it kicked out Yanukovych. But since then, no one from the new government has reached out to us to try and find a middle ground. Why haven’t they come here to listen to these people’s concerns?”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter