Kyiv calls referendums a ‘farce’ as breakaway regions declare independence

Pro-Russian group in Donetsk calls for Russian annexation; Luhansk says it is self-ruling

People vote in a referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic at a polling station in Donetsk, Ukraine, May 11, 2014.
Maxim Shipenkov / EPA
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Ukraine's government condemned referendums in eastern Ukraine as a "farce" on Monday, as separatists from the pro-Moscow regions declared independence and asked to join Russia. 

Organizers said 89 percent of those who cast ballots Sunday in the Donetsk region and about 96 percent of those who turned out in Luhansk voted for sovereignty for the sprawling areas that lie along Russia's border and form Ukraine's industrial heartland. Donetsk has about 4.4 million people, and Luhansk has 2.2 million.

The results were seized upon by separatists who pushed for further autonomy from Kyiv and annexation by Russia.

On Monday, the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) declared the region independent and signaled a desire to follow Crimea in being annexed by Moscow.

"Based on the will of the DPR and to restore historic justice, we ask the Russian Federation to consider the question of entry of the DPR into the Russian Federation," said Denis Pushilin, chairman of the DPR, said in a televised press conference. 

The pro-Russian mayor of Slovyansk even invited Russian troops into the region to provide stability.

Likewise, pro-Russian leaders in the Luhansk region also called for autonomy, announcing its independence at a public rally.

But Kyiv sought Monday to delegitimize the regional vote.

Even before the results were announced, Ukraine's Foreign Ministry called the referendums a "criminal farce." The U.S. and other Western governments said they wouldn't recognize the outcome and threatened further economic penalties.

In response to the Ukrainian government's reaction to the referendums, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Monday that Kyiv was acting with a "criminal" lack of readiness to engage in dialogue with eastern Ukraine.  It called again for the Ukrainian government to initiate talks with the breakaway regions.

Western leaders, faced with Russian assertiveness not seen since the Cold War, have suggested more sanctions in the key areas of energy, financial services and engineering if Moscow disrupts a presidential election planned in Ukraine on May 25.

The European Union, which has called the referendum illegal, has prepared a list of 13 people and two Crimean companies active in the energy sector that ministers are likely to add to the EU sanctions list, EU diplomats said.

But the EU will remain far behind the United States in the severity of the sanctions it has imposed on Russia. Some European governments fear tough trade sanctions on Russia could undermine their economies, which are just recovering from the financial crisis, and provoke Russian retaliation.

Roman Lyagin, election chief of the DPR, said about 75 percent of the region's 3 million or so eligible voters cast ballots, with the vast majority backing self-rule.

With no international election monitors in place, it was all but impossible to verify the rebels' claims. A preliminary vote count was announced just two hours after the polls closed in an election conducted via paper ballots.

A second referendum organized by pro-Russian groups was held Sunday in eastern Ukraine's industrial Luhansk region, but no immediate results were released. According to RIA, citing a separatist leader, Luhansk may hold an additional referendum, this time on joining Russia, Reuters reported.

Although the voting in the two regions appeared mostly peaceful, armed men identified as members of the Ukrainian national guard opened fire on a crowd outside the town hall in Krasnoarmeisk, and an official with the region's rebels said people were killed. It was not clear how many.

The bloodshed took place hours after dozens of armed men shut down voting in the town. The shooting starkly demonstrated the hair-trigger tensions in the east, where pro-Russian groups have seized government buildings and clashed with Ukrainian forces over the past month.

Ukraine's central government and the West had condemned the balloting as a sham and a violation of international law, and they have accused Moscow of orchestrating the unrest in a possible attempt to grab another piece of the country weeks after the annexation of Crimea.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had asked the organizers of the latest referendums to delay them in an apparent attempt to ease the crisis. The rebels refused. The results of the two votes could hasten the breakup of the country and worsen what is already the gravest crisis between the West and Russia since the end of the Cold War.

Over the past few weeks, the Ukrainian government and the West have accused Russia of trying to destabilize the country or create a pretext for another invasion. Russia — which annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula just days after voters there approved secession in a March referendum — has rejected the accusations.

Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov and the rest of Ukraine's caretaker government came to power in February after the ouster of Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych after months of protests in Kyiv. Moscow and many in Ukraine's east have accused the new government of intending to trample the rights of eastern Ukraine's Russian speakers.

More than 30 people have been reported killed since Ukrainian forces began trying to retake some eastern cities from the rebels.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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