Posted: May 11, 2014 7:38 AM
Updated: May 11, 2014 7:38 AM
DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) Residents in eastern Ukraine formed long queues at polling stations Sunday to cast their votes in hastily organized independence referendums, defying the central government which called the ballots illegal and funded by neighboring Russia.
The votes seek approval for declaring so-called sovereign people's republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where pro-Russian insurgents have seized government buildings and clashed with police and Ukrainian troops over the past month.
Ukraine's interim president warned that independence for eastern regions would destroy the country's economy. "This is a step into the abyss for the regions," Oleksandr Turchynov said in comments posted on the presidential website Saturday.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) and were due to close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT). There were reports of sporadic clashes, but the situation remained calm in most of the sprawling regions with a population of 6.5 million and referendum organizers said they expected a high turnout.
Insurgents in the city of Slovyansk, which has seen some of the most violent clashes between pro-Russian militants and government forces in recent weeks, exchanged fire with Ukrainian troops on the outskirts of the city overnight. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said an army soldier was wounded in a mortar shelling.
The port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov also has remained on edge after Friday's clashes, in which at least seven died. Long lines of voters were seen in the city's streets.
The Ukrainian government and the West have accused Russia of fomenting or even directing the unrest in the east, with the goal of destabilizing Ukraine or finding a pretext for invasion. Russia has rejected the accusations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had asked the referendums' organizers to delay the vote as he bargained with Western powers on conditions for defusing the worst crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War. The insurgents, however, have refused to heed his call.
"For us, the most important thing to show the legitimacy of the referendum is the amount of people who will vote," said Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. "But for now, we're waiting for the official reaction, particularly from our brothers in Russia."
Election organizers said more than 30 percent of voters cast ballots in the first three hours of voting, but with no international oversight mission in attendance, confirming such claims is likely to be all but impossible.
At one polling station in a school in Donetsk, turnout was brisk in the first hour of voting. All voting slips that could be seen in the clear ballot boxes showed that the option for autonomy had been selected.
Although election officials in Donetsk have said they are certain that turnout will be high, it seems likely that most of those opposed to autonomy will decline to participate.
Darya, a 25-year old medical worker who refused to give her last name, said she saw no reason to cast ballot as the vote had no legal force anyway.
"There were no notices about this referendum anywhere, about where and when it was happening," she said while walking her dachshund. "In any case, it is not valid, so there was no reason to take part."
Many of those who did vote said they hoped the ballot would help stabilize the situation.
"I just don't have the words to express what is happening in our country," said Liliya Bragina, 65. "I have come so that there will be stability, so that there will be peace."
The haphazard nature of the referendums was in full display at Spartak, a leafy village on the northern fringes of Donetsk.
Villagers were unable to vote for about three hours after polls opened as election officials had failed to bring in the ballot box.
After some arguing between local people and the head of the village council, an election organizer arrived with a voting urn crudely fashioned from cardboard boxes and sealed with tape. Outside the polling station, set up in a village club, one local man complained volubly over the quality of the ballot box as cows basked in the bright sunshine.
Most present said they were voting in favor of autonomy and against the interim government. One said she would not take part in a nation-wide presidential election set for May 25.
"I don't agree with what is happening in the country. And I want some changes for the better. What is happening on May 25 is not honest, truthful or for our best interests. And that is why I am voting today," said Irina Zelyonova, 30, cradling her baby in her arms.
The hastily arranged ballots are similar to the March referendum in Crimea that approved secession from Ukraine. Crimea was formally annexed by Russia days later.
But organizers of Sunday's vote have said that only later will a decision be made on whether they would use their nominal sovereignty to seek full independence, absorption by Russia or to stay part of Ukraine but with expanded power for the regions.
Surveys by polling companies have indicated that a significant majority of people in Ukraine reject movements to break away parts of the country.
Turchynov and Ukraine's caretaker government came to power in February following the ouster of Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych after months of protests in Kiev.
Moscow and many in Ukraine's east denounce the new government as a nationalist junta and allege that it intends to trample on the rights of eastern Ukraine's Russian-speakers.
More than 30 people have been reported killed since Ukrainian forces began mounting offensives to retake some eastern cities now under control of the insurgents.
Turchynov's chief of staff, Serhiy Pashynskyi, pledged Sunday that the government would seek to avoid further civilian casualties. "We will not engage in street fights in Slovyansk or elsewhere because that will lead to dozens of unnecessary deaths," he told reporters.
Mark Rachkevych in Kiev, Ukraine contributed to this report.