For Separatists, Ballots Are On Their Way — But Plans Are Still Pending

The self-proclaimed governor of the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk announced that preparations were underway for an independence referendum. Separatists' intentions there appear to be unclear, and their opponents feel angry and abandoned by the government in Kiev.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Pro-Russian separatists are tightening their grip on eastern Ukraine. Yesterday, Ukraine's interim president declared his troops helpless to stop them. And today, there was violence in Donetsk, where pro-Moscow militants stormed the prosecutor's office. In the eastern city of Luhansk, the self-proclaimed separatist governor says ballots are ready for a regional vote on independence to be held in 10 days. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was in Luhansk today and reports that autonomy may not be the only thing separatists are seeking.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" plays on loudspeakers set up by armed pro-Russian separatists during a May Day rally outside the occupied regional government headquarters here in Luhansk. The irony that the German composer was a Hitler favorite and that these protestors claim to fight Nazis and fascists appears lost on the separatists and their supporters.

(APPLAUSE)

NELSON: Nevertheless, the music and the separatist leaders' speeches electrified the crowd.

CROWD: Russia, Russia.

NELSON: They chant Russia, Russia, making it clear whose side they are on in the new confrontation between the U.S. and the Kremlin. The separatists were also bolstered by the Ukrainian interim president yesterday, who declared this region was no longer under Kiev's control.

VALERIY BOLOTOV: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Self-proclaimed Governor Valeriy Bolotov tells the Luhansk crowd the Ukrainian military can't predict our next step.

BOLOTOV: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He adds we've just received the ballots for a referendum.

(APPLAUSE)

NELSON: Bolotov didn't give any details about what's on the ballot. But in neighboring Donetsk, voters will be asked a single question: Do you want an independent republic? Back in Luhansk, businesswoman Oksana Titova says she knows how she will vote if asked whether her region should secede from Ukraine.

OKSANA TITOVA: (Foreign language spoken) Yes, yes.

NELSON: Others here, like Fedor Chernetskiy, seem confused about what voting for independence means.

FEDOR CHERNETSKIY: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The retired factory worker says he plans to vote yes because he wants local officials to have greater autonomy, but that he still wants his city to be part of a united Ukraine. Opponents of the separatists here accuse them of keeping the referendum vague in order to get more yes votes. They say the separatists are planning a subsequent referendum on whether or not their region should join the Russian Federation like Crimea did. One of the critics is Olga Sergeyva. The Luhansk human rights activist says the pro-Russian groups' seizures of so many key government centers is largely about gaining access to voter rolls and other records.

OLGA SERGEYVA: (Through translator) These people were planning for this referendum for quite some time. It's obviously no coincidence that they are taking over the right buildings now.

NELSON: But the activist says nobody opposed to the separatists in Luhansk dare speak out because anyone who does is harassed, beaten or worse. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

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