Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ukraine crisis: Pro-Russia rebel vote to go ahead

Richard Galpin, in Donetsk, watches as activists decide not to delay the referendum
Pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine have decided to go ahead with a referendum on autonomy on Sunday, despite a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone it.
The move was announced by separatist leaders after consulting supporters.

On Wednesday, Mr Putin called for a postponement to create the conditions necessary for dialogue.

Ukrainian authorities say they will disregard the results and that "anti-terror" operations will continue.

Millions of ballot papers have been prepared for the vote.

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Perhaps Kiev and the EU and the US should take his [Putin's] remarks at face value, and immediately start a dialogue with the Donbass protesters”
The decision to press ahead was announced by separatist leaders in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, said it had been unanimous. 

The suggestion to postpone the vote may have come "from a person who indeed cares for the people of the south-east," he said, "but we are the bullhorn of the people".

A spokesman for the Kremlin said there was "little information" and that it needed to further analyse the situation.

The BBC's Richard Galpin in Donetsk says tensions are running high amid fears that a vote will exacerbate tensions and possibly plunge the country into a full-blown civil war.
Relatives and friends of pro Russia gunmen killed in clashes with the Ukrainian army on Monday cry after the funeral of several pro Russia gunmen and a civilian in Sloviansk In the city of Sloviansk, funerals took place on Wednesday of those killed in clashes between the army and pro-Russia gunmen
A woman looks at a Ukrainian armoured personnel carrier at a checkpoint in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine The southern port city of Mariupol has also witnessed unrest
An election worker at the Donetsk self-proclaimed republic's election commission arranges referendum materials in Donetsk, 8 May Pro-Russian activists in Donetsk are busy making arrangements for Sunday's vote
'Illegitimate referendum'
Moscow has vowed to protect the rights of Ukraine's Russian-speaking population against what it calls an undemocratic government in Kiev.

Ukrainian authorities have rejected activist demands for greater autonomy and troops have been battling to regain official buildings occupied by rebels in the east.


The announcement was made at a packed news conference inside the regional administration building which the pro-Russian separatists have occupied for more than two months, giving them control over the city and beyond.

One of the separatist leaders said the referendum would go ahead on Sunday because otherwise the leadership would lose the trust of its supporters.

Tensions are already running very high across this region as the Ukrainian military tries to push the pro-Russian separatists out of at least 12 towns and cities where they have occupied key buildings.

Dozens of people have been killed in recent clashes and the fear now is that Ukraine could slide into full-blown civil war.

The European Union weighed in on Thursday, warning that "such a vote could have no democratic legitimacy and would only further worsen the situation". 

The separatists' decision to hold the referendum comes as a Pew Research Center poll released on Thursday shows that a strong majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain unified, even in the largely Russian-speaking east.

The US and the European Union have imposed sanctions against several Russian individuals and businesses and threatened wider measures if Moscow interferes further in eastern Ukraine.

Sunday's planned referendum was seen as a potential trigger for that.
Russian 'shift'
Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniyuk dismissed Mr Putin's calls to delay the referendum as "hot air".

But the Russian president appeared to depart further from policy when he said that presidential elections due on 25 May in Ukraine were a move "in the right direction".
His remarks came just days after his spokesman said holding such an election would be absurd.

Meanwhile in the south-eastern port city of Mariupol, the city hall has changed for the third time in two days. Ukrainian forces are now back in control, after seizing it from pro-Russian activists on Wednesday - only to be expelled a few hours later.

On Thursday US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said Russia was heading down an "irresponsible path" over Ukraine, and that the situation there was "extremely combustible".
Unrest in the south and east of Ukraine has worsened since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in March.

That followed the ousting of Ukraine's pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February by pro-Western protesters.
Map showing eastern Ukraine

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