Separatists Hold Referendum On East Ukraine Independence

Pro-Moscow separatists hold their unofficial referendum on independence for eastern Ukraine on Sunday. NPR's Rachel Martin talks to correspondents Corey Flintoff and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Separatists in eastern Ukraine are holding a hastily arranged referendum today on self-rule for the region. The international community has called the vote illegitimate, but it is going ahead nonetheless.

The vote comes several weeks after Russia annexed Crimea after a similar vote. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is at a polling station in Donetsk. And NPR's Corey Flintoff is in Luhansk They join me now to talk about the vote. Soraya, what are you seeing where you are?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The turnout's been between low and moderate and high depending on which polling station we go to. The one I'm at at the moment, we have a steady trickle of people coming in and they're very enthusiastic. Everyone that we've talked to has said that they are voting yes. And one of the voters who cast a yes ballot is Sergei Irbalko (ph) who is a 48-year-old physics teacher.

SERGEI IRBALK: This is all Russians and this is old Russian land.

NELSON: He went on to say that this is a first step, this vote. And that the next vote should be about whether this region joins Russia.

MARTIN: Corey, what's the mood in Luhansk?

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Things seem very quiet here, Rachel. We just visited a polling station in the center of the city and once again there was a steady trickle of people coming in. In about 10 minutes we saw about 15 people come in and vote. We talked to the voting officials and they said that so far, as of midday today, about 40 percent of the people in the region had voted and they claim that up to 90 percent have voted in some of the villages.

NELSON: So in Donetsk, at this point they're reporting more than 30 percent as of the first four hours of balloting. The highest numbers are in Kostiantynivka, 44 percent they're reporting. And lower numbers in Sloviansk and Mariupol, where of course there's been the fighting going on.

MARTIN: And can you tell us more about that violence?

NELSON: Yes, in both in Mariupol and in Sloviansk - Sloviansk is the target of a military and police operation launched by Kiev some days ago and there were skirmishes overnight. This has affected polling there. The separatist organizers of this referendum say that they are closing the polls early in Sloviansk - 6 p.m. rather than 10 p.m. local time.

In Mariupol, they only had eight polling centers for 500,000 people so there were long lines being reported, a lot of frustrated people trying to cast their ballots and a lot of tension just because this violence has sort of been sporadic. So everyone's on edge and fearful and yet wanting to vote.

FLINTOFF: Rachel, I can add to that, that the election officials here in Luhansk have told us that while there are no problems in the immediate area, some of the villages in the northern part of the Luhansk region are experiencing voting problems and they say it's because Ukrainian security forces have blocked the roads and are preventing them from delivering ballots to those places.

NELSON: At the same time, let me just add one more thing there, and that is that it is an illegitimate vote - certainly Kiev and also its Western allies have made it clear that they do not see this as counting for anything. But on the other hand, at least here in Donetsk, which is the regional capital, all of the ballots are being cast inside schools, inside community centers, which is normally where they would be cast.

There are some reports that principles were threatened, but at least here today in Donetsk, though, what I'm seeing is that the government has not intervened, the police are not trying to stop this and that the balloting is actually taking place inside schools.

MARTIN: And, Soraya, remind us - this is actually not a vote on whether or not these regions should join Russia at this point.

NELSON: No, at least in Donetsk the question is whether or not the voters supports the act of independence for the state of the Donetsk People's Republic, which is what they're calling it in this region, that this republic here.

FLINTOFF: And, Rachel, I can say that the same language is being used in Luhansk, except that it substitutes the Luhansk People's Republic.

MARTIN: And, Corey, what's the Kremlin's position on this vote? Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had suggested last week that the election should be postponed, but the Kremlin didn't follow up with further appeals to the separatists to hold off. How is Moscow viewing this?

FLINTOFF: Well, (laughing) you kind of just answered my question here. But, yes, President Putin did say last week that he thought the referendum should be delayed and in fact there seems to have been no follow-up at all from the Kremlin. You know, normally when Putin says something like this, other Russian officials echo it in the media. And that hasn't happened this time.

Some analysts that I've talked with think that this is designed to provide Russia with plausible denial to allegations that Russia's really pulling the strings in this selection. It was also seen as a way for Russia to avoid over committing itself or drawing any red lines that it couldn't back away from.

MARTIN: So does that mean that these parts of Ukraine could hold a second referendum on whether or not to join Russia?

NELSON: Well, here in Donetsk that's certainly what the voters that I've spoken to are hoping for. Some did say they hope a declaration of independence is enough, but others say that in order to keep the economy going, that they really do want to be part of Russia.

FLINTOFF: I think people's understanding of the question is that there will be another referendum or a vote on actually joining with Russia. But I asked that question of several people at one of the polling places and they were equivocal about it. One woman said that she wanted peace and order and that's what she was voting for and she would not say that she wanted to join Russia.

MARTIN: NPR's Corey Flintoff and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson monitoring the referendum taking place in Ukraine today. Thanks to both of you.

NELSON: You're welcome.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Rachel.

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