In Two Eastern Ukraine Provinces, Bold Steps Toward Independence

Two regions of eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, voted Sunday on referendums for self-rule. Separatists in Donetsk announced overwhelming support for independence.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine declared independence for two regions today, after announcing the results of a much-disputed referendum. Separatist leaders in the Donetsk region asked to join Russia. The Kremlin said it respected the vote but it has not yet responded to that request. The Ukrainian government maintains the referendum was illegal, and it threatened criminal prosecution for those who organized it. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Donetsk.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Donetsk separatist leaders announced the results of the vote to a room packed with reporters, many from pro-separatist and Russian news outlets.

ROMAN LYAGIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: The head of the separatist election committee, Roman Lyagin said that more than 89 percent of voters supported independence. Only about 10 percent of the voters rejected the idea. He was greeted by applause from many of the pro-Russian journalists, a sign that showed how partisan much of the reporting has become. Shortly afterward, Denis Pushilin, the self-styled governor of the People's Republic of Donetsk, announced the result to a crowd gathered outside the occupied city hall.

DENIS PUSHILIN: (Foreign language spoken)

(APPLAUSE)

FLINTOFF: The separatist officials have brushed aside allegations that the vote was illegitimate, rushed and lacking in many basic safeguards. They portray the referendum as proof that they have the backing of a solid majority of people in Ukraine's mining and industrial heartland. Nadezda Titova stood watching the announcement of the results with a friend and she was reluctant at first to talk to an American reporter because she believes that her words will be distorted. When she finally agreed to comment, she said this.

NADEZDA TITOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: We are very far away from independence yet, she said, but this is a celebration and a feeling of some kind of freedom and justice that we propped up by ourselves. She went on to say that she believes that the immediate future is going to be difficult for the people of the region, as they try to hang on to their independence. A few blocks away, Maxim, a university biochemistry student, was ignoring the whole proceeding. He declined to give his last name, out of concern that separatists might take revenge on him.

MAXIM: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: My personal opinion, he says, is that it's all false. The people's opinions aren't being considered. My radical opinion is that bandits seized all the power. I don't think it's right. Maxim says he's thinking of moving to Kiev or some other part of the country that's controlled by the government. Ukrainian officials continued to denounce the referendum as a farce, trumped up to give legitimacy to Russian-backed trouble-makers who are trying to grab power. This is Pavlo Sheremeta, the minister of Trade and Development in Ukraine's interim government. He says the government can't take the referendum seriously because there's no way to judge its validity.

PAVLO SHEREMETA: The whole referendum is unconstitutional but at least, you know, if you do the, you know, any things like that, you know, why don't you have observers, why don't you have a decent list of the voters, why don't you ensure the voters have the equal right?

FLINTOFF: Russia insists that the government in Kiev must now talk with the separatists on an equal basis but that seems like a step that may be increasingly unlikely as positions harden on both sides. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Donetsk.

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