The breakaway region of Donbass in Eastern Ukraine has held its own elections nearly two weeks after the rest of the country, in effect freezing the frozen conflict in the east and leaving the Kyiv government in an extremely difficult position.
With more than half of the votes counted as of November 3 it appears the incumbent leader Alexander Zakharchenko has won with more than 70% of the vote and will be made president of the so-called Donetsk Republic, Russia's Interfax news agency reported.
The incumbent leader of the neighbouring Luhansk People's Republic, Igor Plotnitsky, is also expected to win with 63%, election organisers said after almost a third of votes were counted.
Both Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky ran against relatively unknown candidates who all supported independence from Ukraine.
The elections were held in the self-proclaimed Donbass People’s Republics in defiance of almost universal condemnation including the UN and governments from Kyiv to Washington, which say they will not recognise the results.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been a key player in trying to bring the conflict to an end, told President Vladimir Putin on the phone that Sunday's planned elections in eastern Ukraine were illegitimate and would not be recognized by European leaders, a Berlin government spokesman said on Friday.
"Merkel and [French president Francois] Hollande underlined there can only be a ballot in line with Ukrainian law," he said, adding that the vote would violate an agreement endorsed by Russia and further complicate efforts to end the crisis in eastern Ukraine. "The German government will not recognise these illegitimate elections," Merkel's spokesman said.
Despite the condemnation the turnout was high – higher than the 53% that turned out for the parliamentary elections in the rest of the country a week earlier, which suggests the popular support for succession, or at least more autonomy from Kyiv, in the region remains real. The rebel-held territory in Donetsk and Luhansk boycotted the October 26 vote.
The vote was a blow for the peace process signed in Minsk in September and puts Kyiv back in direct conflict with Moscow, which has suggested it will recognise the vote.
The 12-point protocol, issued after talks involving Russia, Ukraine, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and separatist leaders, called for early local elections in the east in accordance with Ukrainian legislation. However, a dispute has opened up as to whether this election should be held "in line with" Ukrainian law or "in cooperation" with the Ukrainian government. The rebels are arguing the latter, which would give them autonomy over the process. Zakharchenko said after the first results were published that the vote was in accordance with the Minsk protocol.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said that it would recognise the result. "The elected representatives received a mandate to solve practical issues to restore normal life in the regions," the ministry said on Facebook.
"The Russian side speaks out in favour of establishing a sustainable dialogue between the central Ukrainian authorities and the representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions which, beyond any doubt, would contribute to an overall stabilisation of the situation," Russia's foreign ministry said earlier in a statement.
"Moscow may decide to try and call the West's bluff by recognising the republics and daring the West to further impose/tighten sanctions. Likely Moscow assumes the West has no appetite for a further iteration of sanctions against Russia," said Tim Ash, head of research at Standard Bank, in a note sent to clients.
The Kremlin says following the elections the next step is to start a dialogue with the Ukrainian government in Kyiv.
Kyiv has been outspoken in its condemnation of the elections. Donbass is home to much of the country's industrial assets and accounts for about a quarter of industrial production as well as being a major source of tax revenue for the cash-strapped government. Kyiv desperately needs to regain control of the region before it can restart the serious business of rebuilding, but this election will make reunited the country even more difficult.
“The farce under barrels of tanks and guns, which two terrorist organizations staged today on a part of Donbass territory, is a horrible event that has nothing in common with real expression of free will,” Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said in a statement ahead of the vote.
The international community also voiced its disapproval. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he “deplores” the elections as a “breach of the constitution and national law", according to the UN’s website.
“These ‘elections’ will seriously undermine the Minsk protocol and memorandum, which need to be urgently implemented in full," he added.
The situation remains delicate. Almost as soon as polls closed (voting was extended by two hours to allow everyone to cast their ballots) fighting immediately resumed around the airport in Donetsk, reported local journalists.
Despite all sides signing off on a ceasefire in Minsk, fighting on the ground continues regardless, albeit at a much lower intensity. About 10 combatants reportedly have been killed every day since the ceasefire came into effect and fighting around the Donetsk airport has been particularly fierce. Over 3,700 people have been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine altogether, according to the UN.
Zakharchenko, 38, led the group of protesters that seized the local government building on April 16 and later “took part in many important battles", according to a biography posted on the local election commission’s website.
Plotnitskiy, 50, joined the Soviet army in 1987, where he served until 1991, when the Soviet Union disbanded, according to a biography compiled by state-run Russian news service RIA Novosti. He became the commander of the local separatist unit Zarya in April and the next month he became prime minister of the people’s republic.
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