Spurning Putin's Calls For Delay, Ukrainian Separatists Forge Ahead

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent comments, separatists in some cities in eastern Ukraine say they plan to go ahead with their unofficial independence referendum on Sunday.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. In eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists have decided to go ahead with Sunday's referendum on independence. That's despite Russian President Vladimir Putin urging them yesterday to postpone that vote. Here's the self-declared governor in the eastern region of Donetsk earlier today.

VALERY BOLOTOV: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: He says 100 percent of his supporters voted to proceed with the poll. We go now to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who is in Donetsk. And, Soraya, Vladimir Putin called on the separatists to postpone that vote. They are going to go ahead. Did they explain why?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Yeah. The self-proclaimed of the Russian separatists said that Vladimir Putin is looking for peaceful ways to resolve the situation but that in the end, this counsel of the separatists, that they're merely the voice of the people and that the people want this referendum so that they have to proceed.

BLOCK: How are they going to have this referendum on independence if the Ukrainian military continues to conduct an offensive against pro-Russian insurgents in that part of the country?

NELSON: Well, to hear the Donetsk People's Republic, as they call themselves, explain it, they said that they have 15,000 volunteers to carry out this referendum, that polling stations will be available in all locations, that they've printed three million ballots already. And similar preparations are underway in neighboring Luhansk, which is another region that's holding one of these unsanctioned independence referendums. But, in reality, it seems unlikely that there will be a meaningful turnout, given that they don't control a lot of these schools where polling stations are normally set up for government-sanctioned elections. And they're also lacking current voter rolls, according to Ukrainian officials.

BLOCK: And, Soraya, what specifically are voters going to be asked on Sunday in this referendum?

NELSON: There's one question on the ballot and that is do you support the proclamation of independence of the Donetsk People's Republic? In Luhansk, it would probably be the Luhansk People's Republic. And then voters will answer yes or no. The referendum organizers say a yes vote doesn't necessarily mean autonomy or independence. They'll sort that out later.

BLOCK: But just to be clear, it does not mean, yes, we want to become part of Russia.

NELSON: No. That will be a subsequent referendum, according to some of the people that we've talked to in the separatist camp.

BLOCK: And is there any sense there in eastern Ukraine of what the results of this referendum might end up being?

NELSON: Well, I've talked to a lot of people over the last couple of weeks. And many of them say they plan to vote yes, but just as many say they want to remain part of a united Ukraine. And that sentiment seems to be borne out by a new Pew Research Center poll. The survey found 77 percent of people in Ukraine want to remain in a single unified state. And the number is lower but it's still a majority here in this largely Russian-speaking region.

BLOCK: Well, what's the reaction been from the Ukrainian government to this announcement that the referendum is going ahead this weekend?

NELSON: Well, both the government in Kiev as well as the U.S. and European governments have denounced this as an illegal referendum or an illegal poll. Here in Donetsk, the Kiev-appointed governor, Sergei Taruta, called it a pseudo-referendum. And he says it won't reflect the will of all the residents because the pro-Russian organizers can't reach all of the voters. But he says it's not up to him to stop it. And that's something that state security services here would have to tackle. And he also doesn't think voters who take part should be punished because he says they're misguided but not criminals.

BLOCK: OK. Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Donetsk, Ukraine.

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