Vote Preparations In Chaos As Eastern Ukraine Gets Ready For Referendum On Autonomy

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Ponomaryov
Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, separatist "people's mayor" of Slaviansk, holds a referendum ballot during a news conference in Slaviansk, eastern Ukraine, May 10, 2014.

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Nikolai Danko would like to vote in Sunday’s separatist referendum in eastern Ukraine. But he does not know where to go or how to register.

Confusion is widespread here over the vote organized by the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” and many fear a civil war may follow.

When Danko was asked why should the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, a group that never won power through a vote, be allowed to organize a referendum, he asks: “Why not?”

“If we have good leaders … why shouldn’t they be in charge?”

The ballot asks, “Do you support the act of self-rule of the People's Republic of Donetsk?”

What exactly “self-rule” means is unclear. Is it greater autonomy for the region, which would continue to be part of Ukraine, or is it independence and full separation from the Ukrainian state?

The head of the rebel’s election commission, Roman Lyagin, said the referendum is to decide if the eastern region, known as Donbass, has a right to self-determination, and that there should be another referendum on joining Russia.

Lyagin rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent call to delay the vote, saying that postponing the referendum was not an option because the separatists would lose the people’s trust and may not get another chance at holding a vote.

Putin in fact did the rebels a favor, according to Lyagin, because the president's statement got them plenty of mass media coverage, especially on Ukrainian television, that they would not have received otherwise.

A day before the referendum, at the Donetsk regional administration building occupied by the separatists, an armored vehicle appeared outside flying the Russian, Soviet and “People’s Republic of Donetsk” flags. Inside, the separatist administration did not appear to be especially well-organized -- or well-funded -- as even journalists were asked to donate money, and on one occasion could not leave the building without handing over cash. Lyagin requested people bring their own pens to polling stations, because there was not enough money to buy them.

Outside the press center area, a cartoon showed a man in a balaclava holding a rifle, alongside a warning for people not to enter if they are drunk.

At a school on a major road nearby meant to serve as a voting station, there were no signs on Saturday morning notifying people to cast ballots there. Still, a man who worked in the building said there were two booths inside and more were expected later on, while two police officers nearby said they were not given any information about the vote.

Sitting on a bench across the school, pensioner Lydia Nikolaevna, 63, said she got a letter in her mailbox about the referendum, but did not know where it came from. No matter, she has no intention of voting.

“I support the unity of Ukraine and this referendum is irrelevant and unnecessary, and [will] do harm.”

Another question over the legitimacy of such a vote is the number of people who would cast a ballot, as there is no minimum turnout for the vote to stand. Pro-Russian supporters have grabbed the spotlight in this crisis, but people who show up at their rallies are but a small fraction of the pro-Ukraine demonstrators in Kiev.

There are also no international observers,  although Lyagin said that journalists are invited to be present at the referendum.

During the March referendum in Ukraine’s southeastern peninsula of Crimea -- which Moscow annexed after an overwhelming vote to join Russia -- there were observers present. Their qualifications were disputed and they were not part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which often leads election observations.

Separatists say that the Donbass referendum will be protected by armed special forces that will include volunteers, and police who will protect the voting stations.

Even before the referendum is held, pro-Ukrainians in the region are afraid for their safety. A resident of Donetsk, who requested anonymity out of fear, said she had to flee after separatists labeled her a fascist for organizing pro-Ukraine rallies.

“There was no proof, there was nothing, they were just saying I’m a murderer,” she said. “They just want to punish someone, to kidnap, or to injure or to kill … They need someone to hunt for.”

Many others who helped organize pro-Ukrainians in the east also had to leave, she added, because they felt they and their families were not safe.

Last week a pro-Ukrainian rally here was broken up by rebels, many of them masked and carrying bats. Days later, another rally was cancelled at the last moment out of safety concerns.

The pro-Ukrainian activist said there is no longer a point in demonstrating: the military now must solve the crisis. 

“We are not fascists, we just want Ukraine to be united. That’s the only goal we have.”

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