Pro-Russian Rebels Push Ukraine Closer to Civil War
Policy + Politics

Pro-Russian Rebels Push Ukraine Closer to Civil War

REUTERS/Alexander Mikhailov

DONETSK, Ukraine — Rebels in eastern Ukraine are seeking to harness anger against the government with a hastily organized and vaguely worded referendum on Sunday that they hope will legitimize their uprising, even if it falls far short of giving them a legal mandate to declare an independent state.

As Ukraine sails perilously close to civil war, and drunken mobs rampaged through the streets of the southeastern port city of Mariupol on Saturday, the separatists say the vote could pave the way for a political solution by showing they have the support of the people.

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Yet it is equally likely to deepen the divisions that are ripping this country apart. The government in Kiev has denounced the referendum as illegal and unconstitutional, and many observers say it lacks any credibility. Opponents of the pro-Russian separatists who have seized power here may decide to stay home on Sunday and away from a vote they see as rigged in advance.

The referendum question leaves plenty of room for interpretation, asking voters whether they support a term that could be translated as “independence” or “self-determination” for the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic.

But separatist leaders, who say the government in Kiev is illegitimate, now say they are not necessarily seeking outright independence, nor union with Russia, at least not for the time being.

“A ‘yes’ vote does not mean that the Donetsk region will become part of Russia or stay in Ukraine or become an independent state,” Roman Lyagin, the head of the rebel election commission, said at a news conference Saturday.

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“It means that we will receive the support of a majority of the inhabitants of the region and the moral right to state that we are not happy with the events in our country and demand changes. We want to choose another path for this region.”

Lyagin’s comments could be interpreted as a softening of the rebels’ stance, but it is equally likely that the rebels are trying to inspire a wider protest vote against the government to legitimize their uprising. The confusion, in other words, is likely to work in their favor.

Lyagin, a 33-year-old former political consultant, has previously said he wants the region to become part of Russia. Denis Pushilin, a prominent separatist leader, spoke this week about “sovereignty” rather than “independence,” but then suggested he wanted a situation comparable to Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 and is now recognized by more than 100 other states.

While Russia will almost certainly embrace a “yes” vote as a sign of the rebels’ popularity, the government in Kiev has been joined by the United States and Western Europe in dismissing the vote.

On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the referendum “illegal,” while French President François Hollande said it carries “no weight,” the Associated Press reported.

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Rebels have ignored Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise call for the referendum to be postponed, arguing they would lose popular trust if they did so. Lyagin also said he could go to jail for 10 to 15 years for his role in the vote and suggested that only a mandate from the people will save him.

“It will legitimize us in society all over the world,” he said.

Referendum details

Ukrainian media issued a video and photographs that purported to show three men who had been caught on the outskirts of Slavyansk on Saturday with weapons and a trunk full of ballot papers, already filled in with “yes” votes.

On Thursday, Ukraine’s state security service released an audio recording in which a Russian nationalist politician allegedly advises a separatist leader, worried that they would not able to organize the vote, to simply declare that 99 percent of people, or “let’s say 89 percent,” had voted “yes.”

The authenticity of the recording could not be verified, and separatists say it is a fake; but it nevertheless encapsulates a widespread feeling here — that the referendum’s results have been fixed.

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Lyagin said that he is determined to stage a transparent, objective vote, but that there will be no foreign observers, apart from journalists, only because no one offered to come.

The only voters’ list is two years out of date, but one leading official said anyone who turned up with a passport would be allowed to vote. The ballots lack any markings that could prevent them from being widely copied. And the only people who will be manning the polling stations and counting the votes are the same activists who support a “yes” vote.

Lyagin said his team is spending just $1,700 to stage what he calls a “people’s referendum.” Volunteers at the polling stations will not be paid and have been asked to supply their own pens; most of the budget appears to have been spent on paper to print nearly 3.2 million ballot slips and on toner for three borrowed ink-jet printers.

Yet the low-budget affair seems partly designed to counter suspicions that the rebellion has the financial backing of Russia or of local oligarchs.

Lyagin did not say who had paid for the billboards that appeared all across Donetsk this week urging people to vote yes: to choose between fascists in western Ukraine carrying molotov cocktails and axes, and peaceful miners in the east carrying flowers.

After several days of violence in Mariupol, Lyagin said the separatists might struggle to hold the vote there. Ukraine’s armed forces arrested many militants in Mariupol on Wednesday, and Lyagin said the rebels were coordinating the situation there “on the run” and would conduct the referendum “where it is possible.”

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Drunken mobs roamed the otherwise deserted city center of Mariupol on Saturday as the law-and-order situation there took another turn for the worse. The city council called a day of mourning after Friday’s heavy fighting between pro-Russian militants and Ukrainian security forces left at least seven people dead.

Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said Mariupol’s police chief had been abducted by rebels during Friday’s fighting.

In another sign of the collapsing morale of Ukraine’s security forces, members of the national guard evacuated their barracks in the city Saturday morning, apparently in a hurry. They left behind at least three armored personnel carriers, riot shields, helmets, gas masks and clothes, which were promptly looted, witnesses said.

In Mariupol city center, activists set fire to a broken-down infantry fighting vehicle that the army had been forced to abandon the previous day. But their failure to empty it of all its ammunition caused a series of explosions that led some of their fellow activists to set fire to their barricades, fearing another attack, a witness said.

‘A complete destruction’

In the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, a group of police also laid down their weapons when their camp on the outskirts of the city came under attack by two truckloads of heavily armed militants on Friday evening. The police surrendered 70 automatic rifles and 16,000 bullets, an officer said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

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Militants held nine Red Cross workers — eight Ukrainian and one Swiss — hostage for seven hours in Donetsk, beating one before freeing them early Saturday, a Red Cross official said, according to Reuters. A spokesman for the rebels said they had been detained Friday evening by rebel activists on suspicion of espionage.

Lyagin insisted that national presidential elections scheduled in Ukraine for May 25 could not go ahead in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine.

In Kiev, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov again called on rebellious citizens to work out their differences at the bargaining table, saying the government was willing to discuss more local control and guarantee minority rights for ethnic Russians.

But he warned that supporters of independence for the east “don’t understand that this would be a complete destruction of the economy, social programs and general life for the majority of the population.”

“This is a step into the abyss for the regions,” he said, in comments posted on the presidential Web site.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed people’s mayor of Slovyansk, said the rebels had decided to adopt a “take-no-prisoners” approach in future clashes with the Ukrainian Army.

“We had an unspoken agreement that we do not open fire on regular soldiers of the army,” Ponomaryov said, according to a report on Radio Liberty. But he said rebels would go all out now because, he said, soldiers from the 95th Airborne Brigade killed civilians in a town just outside Donetsk.

“We decided that now we will not take prisoners, we will kill them all,” Ponomaryov said, according to Radio Liberty. According to the news outlet, Ponomaryov said the militants believe that the more ruthless they are, the faster the Ukrainian military will respect them.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post on Saturday, May 10, 2014

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