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Ukraine's Separatists, Weapons At The Ready, Preside Over Referendums


Armed pro-Russian activists stand guard near ballot boxes during the referendum called by pro-Russian rebels to split from the rest of Ukraine on May 11 in Donetsk.
Armed pro-Russian activists stand guard near ballot boxes during the referendum called by pro-Russian rebels to split from the rest of Ukraine on May 11 in Donetsk.
LUHANSK, Ukraine -- There wasn't much to see at the polling station in School No. 52 in the eastern city of Luhansk, where a trickle of voters shuffled in to cast ballots on independence from Ukraine.

In fact, one of the only things a visitor could see was the voting itself. The station, which was being monitored by just three election supervisors -- rather than the nine required by Ukrainian law -- had no voting booths.

Instead, participants were forced to fill out their ballots in plain sight, at open tables -- "yes" for independence, "no" for remaining part of Ukraine.

Such irregularities were reported throughout the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where pro-Russian separatists are attempting to push through a Crimea-style break with Kyiv in favor of eventual absorption into Russia.

Election supervisors in Luhansk admitted to RFE/RL that they were not part of formal commissions participating in Ukraine's May 25 presidential vote, despite earlier protestations from separatist officials that the referendums were being conducted according to electoral law.

In Donetsk, a number of polling stations were operating without official voter lists, forcing supervisors to compile by hand impromptu lists of anyone presenting a passport. One man was seen filling out several ballots at once, saying he had been authorized to vote on behalf of his entire family.

Novosti Donbassa, an online news site based in Donetsk, reported that separatists were witnessed ripping up ballots marked with "no" votes. Other journalists observing the process reported watching voters vote "no" but later claiming to have voted "yes" -- presumably in order to avoid trouble with separatists standing guard, weapons at the ready, outside polling stations or casting their own votes.

In some cases, pro-Russian separatists literally presided over the voting, automatic rifles slung over their shoulders.

The pro-Russian separatists, who for weeks have occupied government buildings throughout eastern Ukraine, are claiming high turnout in the dual votes, with figures as high as 80 percent in Luhansk and 70 percent in Donetsk.

They have also claimed interference on the part of pro-Kyiv forces, with Vasyl Nikitin, a separatist functionary, claiming that members of the Ukrainian National Guard had used armored vehicles to block the entryways to several polling stations and had seized more than 15,000 ballots.

Nikitin said alternate stations were set up to compensate for the setback. The claim follows reports that Ukrainian law enforcement officers had discovered and seized nearly 100,000 falsified "yes" ballots.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has accused "terrorist gangs" of being behind the referendums, which have followed weeks of deadly violence in Ukraine's east. Most recently, 20 separatist militants were killed on May 9 in a government "antiterrorist" operation in the coastal city of Mariupol. Numerous pro-Kyiv officials and activists have also been reported killed.

A number of journalists have reported being beaten or otherwise prevented from entering polling stations.

Both Kyiv and the West have refused to recognize the legitimacy of the independence referendums, which Ukrainian officials have described as "inspired, organized, and financed by the Kremlin."

It is unclear, however, how Western censure will affect further developments in the standoff with Russia, which has been marked by a pronounced disregard for rule of law.
Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts
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