Ukraine rebels have declared two "incumbents" as the winners of controversial elections held Sunday in two eastern regions under separatist control. The results, which Russia recognized and Kiev and the West denounced, threaten to add the east to the list of "frozen conflicts" in former Soviet regions.
Election organizers declared that rebel leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky won sizable majorities in Donetsk and Luhansk respectively, reports Radio Free Europe. Both men have led rebel groups in the fight against the Ukrainian government in Kiev.
But the elections have been controversial from the start, with Kiev and Western powers calling them a violation of a peace agreement drawn up in Minsk, Belarus, in early September. Under the Minsk agreement, Kiev would enact legislation that would grant Donetsk and Luhansk considerable autonomy, but under the auspices of Ukrainian law. Sunday's elections do not comply with Ukrainian law, Kiev argues, and are therefore illegal.
The rebel organizers dismissed Kiev's criticism, reports Radio Free Europe.
"Kyiv should put up with the fact that the Donbas is no longer part of Ukraine," said Roman Lyagin, a separatist election official in Donetsk, using the term to describe an industrial section of eastern Ukraine that partially coincides with the territory held by pro-Russian rebels.
"Whether they acknowledge the expression of our will or refuse to recognize it, that is Kyiv's business. We have decided it all for ourselves," he said at a news conference after declaring Zakharchenko the victor.
The Russian foreign ministry quickly recognized the votes, though in terms suggesting that it still views the regions as part of Ukraine. Russian state news agency TASS reports that the ministry said it "respect[s] the will expression of the residents of (Ukraine’s) south-east.... The elected representatives have got the mandate for the practical efforts aimed at the restoration of normal life in the regions."
The European Union just as quickly dismissed the announced results, reports Deutsche Welle. Newly appointed EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini released a statement saying, "I consider today's 'presidential and parliamentary' elections in Donetsk and Luhansk 'People's Republics' a new obstacle on the path towards peace in Ukraine. The vote is illegal and illegitimate, and the European Union will not recognize it."
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was similarly critical. He said the votes "do not comply with the Minsk agreement, neither in letter nor spirit."
Before the election, Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow business newspaper Kommersant, told The Christian Science Monitor that Russia could not realistically oppose or reject the elections, and that they would only widen the East-West divide over Ukraine.
"Putin has become a hostage to the situation he created himself. Novorossiya [rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk] has become a factor of Russian domestic policy, and it is not politically possible to repudiate it," he said. "It's unfortunate, because Ukraine has a fresh government, one whose legitimacy Moscow cannot deny, and we should be seeking ways to normalize our ties with it. But instead we'll be squabbling over this."
Russia did appear to attempt to bolster the credibility of the elections beforehand by sending a team of international "observers," writes The Interpreter, an online journal operated by the Institute of Modern Russia. The institute is headed by Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of fallen oligarch and Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
The Interpreter writes that a team of foreign poll watchers run by two far-right European organizations – "the Eurasian Observatory of Democracy and Elections (EODE) run by the Belgian fascist Luc Michel and the European Centre for Geopolitical Analysis (ECGA) run by Polish far-right politician Mateusz Piskorski" – entered the Donbass from Russia to observe voting in the manner of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The Interpreter claims that the representatives include members and affiliates of a large array of far-right, fascist European parties, including Hungary's Jobbik and France's National Front. It is not immediately apparent where the Interpreter acquired its list of observers, but it does provide evidence that Russia has in the past claimed such observers to be part of the OSCE, in an apparent attempt to portray controversial elections as backed by Europe. The OSCE did not send representatives to the Donbass elections, and condemned them as a violation of the Minsk agreements.