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Pro-Russians In Eastern Ukraine Gear Up For Self-Rule Referendums

Ukrainians read referendum materials in the eastern city of Donetsk as a supporter of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic stands guard outside the seized regional administration building on May 9, two days ahead of the planned vote.
DONETSK -- Pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine are putting the finishing touches on preparations for their referendums on self-rule, scheduled for May 11.

Photocopying machines have been churning out ballots around the clock in Donetsk, where pro-Russian separatist leaders are pushing ahead with the plebiscite despite a surprise call this week by Russian President Vladimir Putin to put off the vote.

Local organizers say the total run of 3 million ballots is almost ready.

Roman Lyahin, the elections chief of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, says about 1,200 polling stations are being deployed in schools, hospitals, and government buildings across the region.

Voters will be asked to answer "yes" or "no" to the question: "Do you support the act of proclamation of state sovereignty for the Donetsk People's Republic?"
ALSO READ: Explainer -- The Separatist Referendums In Eastern Ukraine

According to Lyahin, some 15,000 volunteers have come forward to help oversee the event.

A similar vote is scheduled in the neighboring Luhansk region, where antigovernment rebels have formed the Luhansk People's Republic.

The votes echo a referendum in Crimea that led to the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula's annexation by Russia in March.

But while Crimeans were unambiguously asked to vote on whether to join Russia, the ballots in eastern Ukraine fail to clearly spell out what organizers have in mind -- independence, greater autonomy within Ukraine, or annexation by Russia.

Campaigning has been low-key, relying largely on hastily improvised billboards, flyers, and graffiti on walls and sidewalks.

Both Kyiv and the West regard the referendums as illegitimate.

Ukrainian acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has warned the vote is a "step into the abyss."

Turchynov said those backing self-rule "do not understand that it would mean the complete destruction of the economy, social programs and life in general for the majority of the population."

Ukrainian authorities in the east, however, admit being powerless to prevent the events from taking place.

Lawmaker Anatoliy Hrytsenko, a candidate in the May 25 presidential poll, says officials currently preparing the presidential vote in eastern Ukraine are actually being pressured by insurgents into helping conduct the referendum.
Armed pro-Russians walk outside a government building they seized in mid-April in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.
Armed pro-Russians walk outside a government building they seized in mid-April in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

Russia's stance is unclear.

Moscow is widely believed to be propping up insurgents in eastern Ukraine, and a recording leaked by Ukraine's SBU security services suggests Russia may have a direct hand in the May 11 referendum, too.

The tape allegedly captures a telephone conversation between a representative of the Donetsk People's Republic and the leader of the Moscow-based nationalist organization Russian National Unity. If genuine, it would show Russian efforts to orchestrate -- and falsify -- the referendum.

Putin's abrupt U-turn on the vote, however, has cast new uncertainty over his strategy in Ukraine. Russia's parliament has also refused to send observers.

Passage of the referendum is far from guaranteed.

A poll released this week by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of eastern Ukrainians are against their region breaking away from Ukraine.

But with many pro-Kyiv locals saying they will boycott the referendum, the vote could still result in a "yes."

There are also fears its organizers will claim victory regardless of the real count.

"The organizers of this fake referendum will declare whatever result they want," Sergiy Tkachenko, the head of the Donetsk Voters' Committee -- a grassroots organization that monitors elections -- told RFE/RL. "Assurances that the vote will be transparent are worth nothing."
Written in Prague by Claire Bigg based on reporting by Valeria Dubova in Donetsk