DONETSK, Ukraine — The photocopy machines churning out the ballots for eastern Ukraine’s sovereignty referendum have been clattering around the clock for days. Even the powerful Vladimir Putin can’t stop them.
Despite the Kremlin leader’s plea to postpone Sunday’s vote, the pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine who call themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic said they’ll go ahead with the referendum.
Ukraine has in recent weeks grown perilously polarized – with the west looking toward Europe and the east favoring closer ties with Russia. Insurgents who detest the central government in Kiev that took power amid chaos in February have seized police stations and government buildings in more than a dozen cities in the east. Ukrainian forces have mounted an offensive to drive them out, an operation that has left several dozen dead.
Support for the referendum is most pronounced among eastern Ukraine’s proudly Russian-speaking working class. Rage against the central government that came to power after months of Ukrainian nationalist-tinged protests is blended with despair at Ukraine’s dire economic straits and corruption.
The occasionally violent protests that culminated in President Viktor Yanukovych’s fleeing to Russia were for many in the east seen as a putsch and a portent of repression against the region’s Russian-speakers.
“This isn’t our government. It’s the government of those that destroyed everything,” said construction laborer Galina Lukash, 48.
Along with the vote in the eastern Donetsk region, a similar and even more hastily improvised referendum is due to take place Sunday in the neighboring Luhansk region. Together they have about 6.5 million people.
The referendums are similar to the one in Crimea in March that preceded Russia’s annexation of that strategic Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula. Like the one in Crimea, they are regarded as illegitimate both by Kiev and the West.
But unlike the Crimean vote, which was held as Russian soldiers and affiliated local militias held control of the peninsula, the eastern referendums take place amid armed conflict. And, critically, unlike Crimea, whose majority Russian-speaking population made approval a foregone conclusion, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have a more mixed population.
A poll by the Washington-based Pew Research center released on Thursday found that 70 percent of the residents of Ukraine’s east want Ukraine to maintain its current borders. That suggests the referendums have a chance of failing, if opponents turn out in force and the count is honest.
However those opposed to the referendum seem likely to ignore it. Some have grown desperate at the anarchy in eastern Ukraine.
“This is a madhouse. That isn’t a particularly literary word, I know, but there is no better way to put it. People are killing one another and we don’t know why,” said 58-year-old retiree Svetlana Amitina.
Putin’s surprise call on Wednesday for the referendum to be put off appears to reflect Russia’s desire to distance itself from the separatists. The West and the Ukrainian government accuse Russia of supporting or outright directing the unrest in the east, while Moscow denies involvement.
“Russia has made it clear it doesn’t want the referendum, so it has no obligation to recognize its results, especially if it fails,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies think-tank.
The decision Thursday by the insurgents’ councils to go ahead with the votes reinforces Russia’s claim it is not in league with the separatists.
“Putin is seeking a way out of the situation. We are grateful to him for this, but we are just a bullhorn for the people. We just voice what the people want,” said Donetsk People’s Republic co-chairman Denis Pushilin.
The Donetsk People’s Republic, which arose in chaotic and murky circumstances in early April, claims to want full autonomy from Ukraine, which they said has been led by a “fascist junta” since Donetsk region native Yanukovych was toppled.
To that end, insurgent election officials said some 3 million ballot papers have been printed for the vote that asks one question: “Do you support the act of proclamation of independent sovereignty for the Donetsk People’s Republic?”
Despite the phrasing, organizers said they decide only after the vote whether they want independence, greater autonomy within Ukraine or annexation by Russia.
Russian state media describe the Donetsk People’s Republic movement as “supporters of federalization,” reflecting Moscow’s official line that it would like Ukraine’s government to devolve some powers to the regions. But many in Donetsk said they would like their would-be republic to one day join their eastern neighbor. The Russian tricolor often flutters over the several dozen government offices seized and occupied by anti-government groups.
If Putin chooses to dash the hopes of those in his own country and in eastern Ukraine who crave another Crimea-style annexation, his now sky-high approval ratings could suffer. But pursuing expansionist goals, or even tacitly supporting anti-government movements in Ukraine, will likely prompt new and substantially more punitive Western sanctions against Russia.
Donetsk People’s Republic elections chief Roman Lyagin said there will be around 1,200 polling stations and he expects a turnout of 70 percent.
“Preparations are going according to schedule. Almost the entire run of ballots has been prepared,” said Lyagin told The Associated Press.
Campaigning for the referendum has been negligible, largely relying on crude graffiti. Many sidewalks bear spray-painted stencil images of the word “referendum” next to a crossed-out swastika.
The Donetsk People’s Republic has its own radio and television stations and a fledgling online presence, all of which have churned out a steady diet of anti-Kiev invective.
The Donetsk People’s Republic was formed April 7 by pro-Russia activists after the storming of a regional administrative building. In subsequent days, heavily armed men began storming police stations and city halls. Journalists, activists and politicians sympathetic to the government started to go missing. Horlivka city council representative Volodymyr Rybak turned up dead, bearing signs of torture.
A climate of fear has grown, fueled by the now-common sight of gunmen roaming even the regional capital, Donetsk.
“We are remaining quiet, because we are simply afraid for our lives,” said Diana Dekatiryova, a university student. “The thought I have is to stay away from the referendum, because nothing will depend on our vote anyway.”
The resolve of many pro-Russians has been emboldened by Ukrainian government operations to militarily recapture Slovyansk, a city 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Donetsk and under the control of the armed Donetsk People’s Republic.
A view shared by many anti-government activists — and eagerly promoted by Kremlin-backed television — is that Ukrainian authorities are shooting people who just want closer relations with Russia.
“They can’t kill everybody. We must cry out. The whole world must learn about this,” said Tamara Soynikova, 59, member of a Donetsk People’s Republic election panel in the city of Kostiantynivka.
In contrast, pro-Ukrainian sentiments are especially pronounced among the younger generation, those with no memory of living in the Soviet Union.
“We were born in Ukraine, we live in Ukraine. What does it matter that we’re Russian?” said first-year law student Arkady Sabronov, 18.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.