Graham Stack in Lugansk -
Illegal polling stations have opened across Ukraine's two easternmost regions, Lugansk and Donetsk, as pro-Russian armed groups hold a referendum May 11 on self rule. The referendum could be the next step down the road followed by Crimea in March – secession from Ukraine and subsequent annexation by Russia.
Hopes internationally and in Kyiv that the plans for a referendum on regional autonomy would collapse in absurdity have not been realised. The separatists say the referendum is going ahead and local authorities are supporting it. "We have complete understanding from local authorities. The polling stations will be in schools across all towns of Donetsk region," Roman Lyagin, the self-appointed chairman of the electoral commission of the so-called "Donetsk people's republic" told the press on May 10.
Donetsk state and municipal authorities have not formally given consent, but advised schools "not to resist" the separatists. In neighbouring Lugansk region, reports also say that skeleton polling infrastructure has been set up, and it has been possible to form electoral commissions for all polling stations.
The referendum will take place without the preconditions for a fair vote, but turnout could suffice to give the Kremlin a tiny fig leaf for naked aggression. "Everyone I know is going to vote," Evgennii Syrovatko, 55, a shopkeeper in the small Lugansk mining town of Krasnodon, 30 kilometres from the Russian border, assured bne. Workers at the Krasnodon "House of Culture", one of the polling stations, said they expected "many" of the townsfolk to turn out.
The pro-Russian groups have billed the referendum as a vote on federalisation, which polls show does enjoy a majority of support across East Ukraine, as opposed to only around 30% in favour of outright secession. But opponents believe the referendum is nevertheless designed to pave the road to annexation analogous to the fate of the Crimean peninsula, which held a referndum in March and was then annexed by Russia. Voters will answer 'yes' or 'no' to the question: do you support the act of state autonomy for the Lugansk/Donetsk people's republic? The Russian word used for autonomy in combination with "state" could be equally taken to mean "independence", believe pro-Ukrainain voices in the region.
A second round of voting on May 18 will then ask whether the now "autonomous" regions should join Russia, a separatist spokesman announced in Donetsk on May 10, clearly anticipating a positive outcome to the May 11 referendum.
Ukrainian and international opinion has questioned the legitimacy of the vote. OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Ranko Krivokapic called the regions' referendums "mockeries of a vote" and "completely illegitimate in the eyes of the international community". The pro-Kyiv governor of Donetsk region, Serhii Taruta, was equally scathing. "We know that this is a pure profanation and you need to treat it as such," he said. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has publicly distanced himself from the vote, recommending it be postponed.
But casting the vote as illegitimate may be wishful thinking and Putin's statements simply a ploy, believe many. "The authorities refuse to recognise that Russia will later place this referendum on toilet paper on a level of legitimacy second only to the declaration of independence of the United States of America," says Serhiy Garmash, editor of independent Donetsk Ostro publication.
According to this scenario, the Donbass – the coalmining basin comprising Donetsk and Lugansk that is historically tightly linked to Russia – may be rapidly following the Crimean peninsula down the road to Russian annexation. The next step after the referendum could be for Russia to assert control over the region, possibly in the form of a "peacekeeping force", with ensuing recognition of autonomy or independence. "The main argument the separatists are using is that the referendum will allow Russia to introduce 'peacekeeping' troops to Ukrainian territory to stabilise the situation," believes Dmitry Timchuk, head at Informational Resistance, an analytical resource monitoring Russia's military moves against Ukraine. "This would be the second stage of Russian aggression following Crimea."
The bitter reality of the referendum – and the inability of the government in Kyiv to stop it – has come as a shock to many in Kyiv and internationally, who have been focused on the TV footage emerging from the armed clashed in Donetsk towns of Slavyansk and Mariupol between the separatists and Kyiv's newly formed national guard units.
But the real story in East Ukraine over the last fortnight may not have been the fighting, but its absence across most of the region. Instead, the mysterious pro-Russian armed groups have swiftly seized effective control over the whole of the Donbass region in a way sufficient to carry out a referendum and brutally suppress opposition. Symbolising the power grab, the "Army of the South-East" – the umbrella organisation for the pro-Russian fighters – is proudly based in the Lugansk regional headquarters of Ukraine's security service, the SBU – the organisation constitutionally tasked with the protecting the territorial integrity of the country. There is scarcely a Ukrainian flag left flying in the city of just over 400,000, capital of a region of 2.7m. The same is true in most of the towns and villages of the two regions.
Donbass thus seems to be fast going down the secessionist road followed by Crimea under Russian supervision. There are some differences: in Donbass, the pro-Russian forces movement had to initially kick down the doors to political power, whereas the doors were opened to them in Crimea. There is also far more opposition in Donbass to the secessionists and the Kremlin than there was in Crimea. The roaming armed separatist groups and a spate of murders and beatings of pro-Kyiv voices blamed on them, have been the answer to both problems: scaring local government officials into submission and have forcing those loyal to Ukraine to flee the region. Hardly anyone with pro-Kyiv sentiments physically present in the region agreed to speak on the record to bne.
In the face of this, Kyiv's highly televised, but localised and futile, attempts to reassert control in the towns of Slovyansk and Mariupol have had the opposite from the intended effect: lending credence to the pro-Russian discourse – already running at full tilt after a disastrous arson attack in Odesa by pro-Ukraine youth caused scores of deaths. "We will take revenge for Odesa, Slavyansk, Mariupol" in different variations reads graffiti found all over the region. The May 9 celebration of the victory of the Soviet Union over fascism further heightened emotions; the pro-Russian separatists regularly compare the new pro-EU government in Kyiv as being a collectiosn of "fascists".
Some are already writing off Donbass. "Please stop the belated and incompetent 'anti-terrorist operation' that you are only conducting so as to not disgrace yourself in the eyes of the electorate [in the May 25 Ukrainian presidential election campaign]," Lugansk pro-Ukrainian activist Kontantin Reutskii, who fled the region, addressed his country's leadership on social networks. "Let Donbass go, and help Ukrainians to leave this cursed region and settle in European Ukraine."
But another prominent pro-democracy activist originally from Donetsk is not ready to give up yet. "I was almost ready to write off Donbass, so widespread are the metastases of slavery there," says journalist Dmitro Gnap, "but then I heard my son in his sleep say: 'We have to fight on to the end'."
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