Eastern Ukraine's vote: a key moment
by Jim Heintz, Associated Press
May 09, 2014 10:15 AM | 738 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Masked pro-Russia insurgents show a detained man, who reportedly is a member of the Right Sector, a nationalist Ukrainian group, when people gathered at barricades in front of a regional administration building that was seized by pro-Russian activists earlier in Donetsk, Ukraine, Sunday, April 20, 2014. The Ukrainian and Russian governments are reporting a shootout at a checkpoint set up by pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine that has left one person dead and others hospitalized with gunshot wounds. Pro-Russian activists brought to the stage a man who was accused of being a member of the radical organization Right sector. They also spoke about what he had found weapons and ammunition.(AP Photo/Max Vetrov)
Masked pro-Russia insurgents show a detained man, who reportedly is a member of the Right Sector, a nationalist Ukrainian group, when people gathered at barricades in front of a regional administration building that was seized by pro-Russian activists earlier in Donetsk, Ukraine, Sunday, April 20, 2014. The Ukrainian and Russian governments are reporting a shootout at a checkpoint set up by pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine that has left one person dead and others hospitalized with gunshot wounds. Pro-Russian activists brought to the stage a man who was accused of being a member of the radical organization Right sector. They also spoke about what he had found weapons and ammunition.(AP Photo/Max Vetrov)
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Pro-Russian activists occupy the regional police office in Donetsk, Ukraine, Saturday, April 12, 2014. Pro-Moscow protesters have seized a number of government buildings in the east over the past week, undermining the authority of the interim government in the capital, Kiev. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Pro-Russian activists occupy the regional police office in Donetsk, Ukraine, Saturday, April 12, 2014. Pro-Moscow protesters have seized a number of government buildings in the east over the past week, undermining the authority of the interim government in the capital, Kiev. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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MOSCOW (AP) — People in two regions of restive eastern Ukraine — Donetsk and Luhansk — will vote on Sunday on declaring sovereignty. The plebiscites, hastily arranged by pro-Russia insurgents who have seized government buildings over the past month, are denounced both by the central government in Kiev and the West, and it is unclear whether they will be recognized by Moscow in light of Russian President Vladimir Putin's call for the vote to be postponed. Issues of legitimacy aside, the vote is sure to add to tensions in an area already gripped by rebellion and sporadic clashes between militants and Ukrainian forces.

How it started

After Viktor Yanukovych, the Russia-friendly Ukrainian president, was toppled in February following months of protests in the capital, many people in eastern and southern Ukraine strongly resented the authorities who took over. The majority in that sprawling swath of the country speak Russian as their mother tongue and many denounced the new government as nationalists — and even fascists — who would suppress the Russian-speakers. The Black Sea peninsula of Crimea held a referendum on secession less than a month after Yanukovych's ouster, and Russia annexed Crimea days later. In April, insurgents calling themselves the Donetsk People's Republic began seizing police stations and government buildings in that region, setting up checkpoints and claiming control of several cities.

The ballot issue

The ballot asks if voters approve establishment of sovereign and independent "people's republics." However, the ultimate goal is not clear. Organizers in Donetsk say that, in the event of a "yes" vote, they will decide later if they want to be independent, seek to become part of Russia, or agree to stay in Ukraine but with significantly greater autonomy.

Russia's involvement

Kiev and the West claim that Russia is fomenting or even directing the unrest in the east, either with the goal of finding a pretext for invading and seizing the region, or of destabilizing Ukraine in order to force it to agree to abandon aspirations to join NATO and the European Union. Russia denies that it has agents on the ground in the east. However, it clearly has strong influence, as witnessed by its success in obtaining the release of OSCE military observers who were taken hostage by militants in the city of Slovyansk, and its adamant criticism of Ukraine's acting government as a junta reinforces the insurgents' resistance.

Putin's call on Wednesday for the referendum to be postponed may have been intended to portray Russia as seeking de-escalation of the crisis. The insurgents' rejection of the call the next day promotes the view that they are not pawns of Moscow, but a genuine people's movement rising up against a purported threat of genocide.

Referendum prospects

Recent poll data show a strong majority in the east favor remaining part of Ukraine, but that doesn't necessarily prefigure a "no" vote on a "people's republic." Many who were on the fence may have been swayed by last week's grisly confrontation in Odessa, where dozens of pro-Russians died when the building where they took shelter was firebombed by government backers. Although Odessa is far away from the referendum regions, the violence reinforced the view of the government side as brutal and vengeful. In any case, sovereignty opponents may choose to sit out the vote because of the intimidating atmosphere. And without international oversight, the vote count's accuracy will be highly debatable.

What's next?

If the vote is "yes" and the insurgents push for incorporation into Russia, Moscow will face a dilemma. U.S. and EU sanctions already appear to be affecting the economy. Russia would be leery of inducing more such punishment by annexing the regions. It would also be logistically more challenging: Crimea housed a large Russian military contingent at the Black Sea Fleet base and reinforcements were brought in quickly before Ukraine could respond. But Ukrainian forces are already fighting in the east.

However, Putin's assertion of Russia's alleged right to reclaim territories that it lost through historical "injustices," which he cited in justifying the annexation of Crimea, could end up making Russia feel obliged to add Luhansk and Donetsk to its territory.



Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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