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Hastily-organized independence votes in eastern Ukrainian cities today went ahead today amid signs of fraud and early indications that Ukraine's pro-Russian separatists look set to carry the day.
CNN reports that in Donetsk, where residents are being asked to vote yes or no on the question "Do you support the Act of Independence of the People's Republic of Donetsk?", the ballot boxes were already emblazoned with an independence flag and that its reporters witnessed multiple instances of people voting twice.
Russian-speaking Ukrainians seized control of a number of cities in the country's east following Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, and a number of leaders of NATO have alleged that Moscow has played a major role in stirring up the conflict and separatist votes.
But there's also clear enthusiasm for a break with Kiev and closer ties with Moscow among many in the industrial regions bordering Russia.
CJ Chivers, a New York Times correspondent in Ukraine, wrote from Slovyansk, which saw serious clashes between separatists and Ukrainian troops earlier this week:
Just watched the ballot count at a Slovyansk polling station. "Da. Da. Da. Da. Da. Da. Da. Da. Da. Da. Da. Da. Da. Da. Da. Da. Da. Da. Da."— C.J. Chivers (@cjchivers) May 11, 2014
Reuters reported clashes on the outskirts of Slovyansk today in a piece that also points out the referendum, organized at break-neck pace and with few safeguards against fraud, is likely to fuel further conflict rather than settle anything.
Ukraine's Interior Ministry called the referendum a criminal farce, its ballot papers "soaked in blood". One official said that two thirds of the territory had declined to participate.
Ballot papers in the referendum in the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, which has declared itself a "People's Republic", were printed without security provision, voter registration was patchy and there was confusion over what the vote was for. Engineer Sergei, 33, voting in the industrial center of Mariupol, said he would answer "Yes" to the question printed in Russian and Ukrainian on the ballot: "Do you support the act of state self-rule of the Donetsk People's Republic?"
"We're all for the independence of the Donetsk republic," he said. "It means leaving behind that fascist, pro-American government (in Kiev), which brought no one any good."
But in the same queue of voters, 54-year-old Irina, saw a "Yes" vote as endorsement of autonomy within Ukraine. "I want Donetsk to have its own powers, some kind of autonomy, separate from Kiev. I'm not against a united Ukraine, but not under those people we did not choose, who seized power and are going to ruin the country," she said.
The Obama administration has staunchly opposed the votes, with the State Department yesterday describing the votes as "illegal" and suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin is responsible:
The referenda being planned for May 11 in portions of eastern Ukraine by armed separatist groups are illegal under Ukrainian law and are an attempt to create further division and disorder. If these referenda go forward, they will violate international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The United States will not recognize the results of these illegal referenda.
In addition, we are disappointed that the Russian government has not used its influence to forestall these referenda since President Putin’s suggestion on May 7 that they be postponed, when he also claimed that Russian forces were pulling back from the Ukrainian border.
Unfortunately, we still see no Russian military movement away from the border, and today Kremlin-backed social media and news stations encouraged residents of eastern Ukraine to vote tomorrow, one even offering instructions for polling stations in Moscow. Russian state media also continue to strongly back the referenda with no mention of Putin’s call for postponement.
Where this is all leading is hard to say, and much will depend on the actions of Moscow. President Putin has repeatedly referred to the need for his government to protect ethnic-Russians in Ukraine and elsewhere, and appears determined to weaken Kiev as much as possible. Fred Weir wrote for the Monitor on Friday that the popular Putin appears to be inspiring a new form of Russian nationalism with expansionist dreams.
There were some fresh notes this year that suggest the Kremlin may be recasting Soviet nostalgia and a sense of Russian superiority into a new doctrine: one that would gather ethnic Russians and other former Soviet "compatriots" into a new Moscow-dominated empire that will once again challenge the West.
This idea, combined with a renewed taste for military expansionism that was test-driven in Crimea, may spell more trouble in future.
"This new Russian nationalism is being blended mostly out of Soviet revivalism, and the feelings of nostalgia for the times when the USSR was an empire that ruled big parts of the world," says Nikolai Svanidze, a famous Russian TV personality in the same vein as Bill Moyers. "The taking of Crimea is perceived, and presented, as a step toward the restoration of the USSR. Even if it's a kind of USSR-lite, it's being used to stir public moods, and it's dangerous."
How deep is separatist sentiment in Ukraine's East? A Pew public opinion survey released last week and conducted between April 4-20, found that a large majority of all Ukrainians in the east - 70 percent - favor a united Ukraine, though among Russian-speakers in the east this number dropped to 56 percent.
Meanwhile, sporadic bloodshed ups the chances of direct Russian military involvement. The AP reports that Ukrainian national guadsmen opened fire outside a crowded hall in the eastern Ukrainian town of Krasnoarmeisk during clashes with separatists over shutting down the referendum and that there were reports of casualties.