In Ukraine, voters look down the barrel of a gun

Yesterday, militants campaigning for the secession of Donetsk and Lugansk from Ukraine staged illegal referenda

James Wilson

Published: Updated:

Yesterday, militants campaigning for the secession of Donetsk and Lugansk from Ukraine staged illegal referenda, which were held at short notice and in conditions of chaos and violence.

Speaking to one voter in Donetsk, who asked to remain anonymous, he said that he had cast a vote yesterday in the city of Donetsk reluctantly, because he had received a notice pasted to the door of his flat that if he did not vote “there would be repercussions.” His wife was too frightened to vote; her shopping trip to the local supermarket the day before had been disrupted by gunfire, as a result of anarchy on the street.

A threatening voting experience

So he went out to cast his vote; when he turned up at the polling station, a local primary school that had been commandeered for the purpose, there were two guards with balaclava helmets concealing their identity and armed with assault rifles who were stationed there to welcome voters at the entrance.

Journalists reported widespread electoral violations at polling stations, and the day before the referendum

James Wilson

Inside the polling station another two armed guards with concealed identities checked the papers as he filled in his ballot; the guards made sure that nothing was secret and that he was voting the correct way. His comment about his experience was that having completed this farcical exercise he wished to leave the country as soon as possible, as he feared mob rule and instability.

The poll in the city of Krasnoarmyansk was suspended when Ukrainian government anti-terrorist troops stormed government buildings in the city.

But the results of the poll are meaningless. The Ukrainian government and the international community do not recognize these referenda. Many ordinary citizens who are in favor of Ukrainian unity were too scared to vote.

Journalists reported widespread electoral violations at polling stations, and the day before the referendum, three militants were arrested near the city of Sloviansk with 100, 000 ballot papers already marked with “yes” votes. The same type of illegal voting took place on March 16in Crimea, which led to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s peninsula.

‘Step into the abyss’

Ukraine’s acting President, Oleksandr Turchynov, in comments on his website said, “this is a step into the abyss for these regions. Those who favor independence don’t realize it means total destruction of the economy, social programs, even life for most people in these regions.”

He said the government was ready to hold talks with the people of Lugansk and Donetsk concerning decentralization that would delegate more administrative power to the regions, but that he was not prepared to discuss with armed militants.

The real impact of the sham referendum is to show that Ukraine’s government is losing control of the eastern regions, and although opinion polls show that 70 percent of the residents favor a united Ukraine, the voice of the rebels in the minority is dictating what happens there. Kyiv accuses Moscow of destabilizing the region by supporting the armed militants.

To judge from the coverage of pro-Russian media, the polls in Lugansk and Donetsk are likely to be recognized by Russia, and when the results are announced by the self-styled Donetsk Republic, they are expected to be hailed by pro-Russian separatists as a victory. With less than two weeks to go before the Ukrainian presidential elections scheduled for May 25, the tensions in Donetsk and Lugansk threaten to unleash further instability that could plunge the country into civil war.

The EU has warned Russia not to disrupt Ukraine’s presidential elections, and is expected to impose further sanctions on individual Russian businesses and officials today when the Foreign Affairs Council meets in Brussels. This action appears to be too little too late; although the Russian economy is already haemmoraghing as a result of sanctions, the damage to Russian business has not yet stopped the relentless interference of Russia in Ukraine’s affairs. Relations between the EU and Russia look set to continue to plummet.


James Wilson is the founder Director of the EU Ukraine Business Council, an organization established in 2006 in Belgium to promote trade and investment between the EU and Ukraine. James is a communications professional with more than 25 years of international business experience in Europe and Asia with a background in government relations. He divides his time between Brussels and Eastern Europe, where he is the Director for Fipra International responsible for their country operations in Ukraine and Belarus.

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