Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) – Pro-Russian rebels late Sunday claimed voters in eastern Ukraine massively backed independence in a disputed poll that Kiev and the West dismissed as an illegal “farce”.
A total 89 percent of voters cast ballots in favour of self-rule in the Donetsk province, one of two regions holding “referendums,” according to the insurgents’ self-styled electoral commission.
Ten percent voted against, and turnout was 75 percent, the commission’s chief, Roman Lyagin, told a news conference in the provincial hub of Donetsk.
“These can be considered the final results,” he said, less than two hours after polls closed.
There was no immediate word of results from Lugansk, the other province holding a similar referendum. But the vote for independence there was expected to be similar to Donetsk’s, or even exceed it.
The two regions are home to seven million people, out of Ukraine’s total population of 46 million.
The West feared these disputed votes could hasten the break-up of the former Soviet Republic and lead to a civil war on Europe’s eastern edge.
Tension over Ukraine has pushed East-West relations to lows not seen since the end of the Cold War.
There was no way to independently verify the vote results. The rebels had prevented foreign media from observing ballot counting, and voting had taken place with no neutral monitors, incomplete electoral rolls, and a haphazard registration procedure that did nothing to prevent multiple voting.
But just before the announced figures, the rebel leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, gave an interview to AFP boasting that the results would “create the first people’s government”.
“This is what we fought for, for the majority to decide the destiny of the region and we achieved that goal,” he said.
The referendums took place under tension in east Ukraine, where troops are waging an ongoing offensive against pro-Moscow gunmen.
Isolated violence flared in some towns. A freelance photographer working for AFP saw a gunman in a group of pro-Kiev militants fire into a crowd of pro-Russian activists in the town of Krasnoarmiysk, badly wounding at least two.
A skirmish also occurred early in the day on the outskirts of the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, where rebels tried to grab back a TV tower.
Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, Slavyansk’s self-styled mayor, boasted while polling was under way that the rebels could go on to organize other polls, including on whether to become part of Russia. “And I can even give you the figures if you want,” he said.
Kiev, though, reacted early on Sunday, calling the vote a “criminal farce” that had no legal validity.
It said the vote was “inspired, organised and financed by the Kremlin”.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt also challenged it, writing on his official twitter feed: “Figures from fake referendums in Eastern Ukraine likely to be fake. No way of knowing even turnout.”
Western nations backing the Ukrainian government also dismissed the “so-called referendums” during the day.
They are “null and void,” French President Francois Hollande said on a visit to Azerbaijan.
The European Union issued a statement calling the vote “illegal” and stating that the outcome would not be recognized. Its organisation “runs counter” to efforts “to de-escalate tensions,” the office of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.