Ukrainian separatists hail self-rule snub to Kiev amid fraud claims

Separatists in eastern Ukraine say that Sunday's referendums strongly favored self-rule for two regions. But questions remain over the validity of a vote that Kiev has strongly rejected. 

Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS
Alexander Malykhin (l.), head of a local election committee, holds up a sheet of paper which shows the results of the referendum on the status of Luhansk region in Luhansk, Ukraine, May 12, 2014.

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Separatists in eastern Ukraine declared victory in Sunday's referendums, claiming that voters overwhelmingly favored independence from Kiev. But the poll tallies and multiple anomalies observed by journalists raise major doubts about the legitimacy of an exercise that Kiev swiftly denounced. 

According to results released by the self-proclaimed electoral commissions of the regions of Lugansk and Donetsk, 96.2 percent and 89.07 percent of voters favored self-rule, Russian state broadcaster RT reports. Separatists in both regions claimed a 75 percent turnout.

The results are impossible to independently confirm, as no election monitors were allowed to observe voting. Many Western news outlets reported instances of voter fraud and ballot stuffing, as well as voters' general lack of understanding of what they were opting for. CNN filmed several voters casting ballots repeatedly, or even multiple ballots at one time. BBC reporters found multiple irregularities in the city of Mariupol:

  • BBC reporters said only a handful of polling stations served Mariupol, a city of half a million
  •  Anyone could vote in any polling station in the region simply by scribbling their name on a piece of paper, they say
  •  The BBC filmed a woman casting two ballots
  •  One pro-Ukraine teacher said she received death threats after refusing to let rebels use her school as a polling station

The BBC also notes that "This was a vote that was organised, run and then counted by the activists behind it."

These incidents do not disprove the purported results, but they add credence to interim President Oleksandr Turchynov's condemnation of the results. "The farce, which terrorists call the referendum, will have no legal consequences except the criminal responsibility for its organizers," Mr. Turchynov said today, reports the Associated Press.

The European Union also criticized the vote, calling it illegal. The EU is expected to enact further sanctions against Russia today for its annexation in March of Crimea, Reuters reports.

Russia took a different tone. The Kremlin's press service said that "Moscow respects the expression of will of the population of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions and proceeds on the basis that the implementation of the results of the referendums will be carried out in a civilised way," reports independent news service ITAR-TASS.

Recent independent polling in eastern Ukraine sharply conflict with the referendum results. A poll released last week by Pew Research found that 70 percent of respondents in the east – and 58 percent of Russian-speaking eastern respondents – wanted Ukraine to remain whole. Only 18 percent of easterners, and 27 percent of eastern Russian-speakers, said the eastern regions should be allowed to secede.

The Pew findings appear to roughly match an April poll on attitudes in southeastern Ukraine conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS). Both found high dissatisfaction with Kiev's governance, but little appetite for outright independence.

Sunday's referendums only took place in the two easternmost regions of Ukraine. The two earlier polls considered attitudes in a much larger portion of eastern Ukraine – 11 regions by Pew, eight by KIIS. However, for the referendum results to square with the earlier polls, support for secession would have to be miniscule outside of the Lugansk and Dontesk regions.

The BBC notes that even among those who did vote on Sunday, there appeared to be confusion over just what they were voting for. The BBC's Sarah Rainford in Donetsk wrote that "Some thought they were casting their ballot to join Russia, some people believed they were voting just to have more power in eastern Ukraine. Even the leaders of the referendum have different comments when you ask them what this is about."

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