Eastern Ukraine Muddles Through Voting On Referendums

Separatists in the eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk and Luhansk asked voters to take part in an unauthorized referendum Sunday on whether to make their region independent.

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In Eastern Ukraine today, pro-Russian separatists in two provinces held unauthorized referendums on the question of self-rule. The Ukrainian government called the polls an illegal farce organized by Russia that did not stop them from taking place. There were reports that Ukrainian national guardsmen opened fire in one town as they tried to stop the voting. Separatists authorities in Donetsk are already claiming victory. But as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, the hastily-arranged vote left lots of room for fraud.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Hundreds of cranky voters crammed into this school lobby in the regional capital of Donetsk. Rimma Bochko who heads the local election committee is not pleased.

RIMMA BOCHKO: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Pay attention, please. Serve these people faster, she shouts, at the five volunteers who are signing in voters. But they have no voter rolls and the process they've set up to determine whether people here want self-rule is time consuming at best.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTION WORKERS)

NELSON: This female election worker takes an elderly voter's passport and asks him whether he lives in Donetsk. He tells her, yes, and recites his address, which she writes out by hand on a sheet of paper. The exchange takes several minutes. She then hands him a paper ballot which the old man checks off and shoves into the top of the clear plastic bin.

Election workers here say, as long as voters' passports include a provincial stamp, they can vote anywhere here. If the polling stations don't share information with each other about who casts ballots, so what's to prevent a repeat of Crimea's referendum? Many voters there cast more than one ballot at different polling centers. This referendum's organizers declined to comment. But even if there isn't fraud, the self-rule proclamations are likely to pass as people voting yes appear to be the only ones showing up.

One was philosophy professor Dmitry Muza. He says the vote is a message to the Ukrainian government that the people of Donetsk don't need it.

DMITRY MUZA: (Through Translator) The problem is that the junta and Kiev is made up of oligarchs and fascists, and they refuse to open a dialogue with people in Southern and Eastern Ukraine. They also started the so-called anti-terrorist operation against us.

NELSON: He's referring to an ongoing Ukrainian military action in Donetsk that's led to fatal clashes over the past two weeks. But in Luhansk, the second province where an unauthorized independence referendum was held today, voting proceeded peacefully. In the small town of Shastia, Viktor Savienko says he chose self rule. The retired construction worker says if there's another referendum on joining Russia as is widely expected, he'll vote for that too.

VIKTOR SAVIENKO: (Through Translator) There is order there, not here. It's better there and everybody works in Russia. There are no jobs here.

NELSON: Back in Donetsk, a small group of activists scatter for a daily prayer vigil for Ukraine. They say they refuse to take part in the referendum because it's a betrayal of their country. One is Lillia Alexeva.

LILLIA ALEXEVA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: She worries if the self-rule vote passes, pro-Russian separatists will grow more aggressive toward Donetsk residents who disagree with them. But she doesn't think the province will be annexed by Russia. Alexeva says she knows a lot of people here who are ready to die to ensure Ukraine stays united. She then walks away to join her friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

NELSON: They sing for peace in their country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Donetsk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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