MOSCOW — Residents of rebel-held eastern Ukraine voted for leaders on Sunday, taking another step toward establishing an independent enclave and exacerbating tensions between Russia and the West.
Thousands of residents across war-torn eastern Ukraine lined up Sunday to give their backing to the current rebel leadership, which has been working to establish a new pro-Russian state in the southeast corner of the country.
The vote, which was embraced by Russia and condemned by Western and Ukrainian leaders, will change little in terms of leadership on the ground. But rebels said it would give them a measure of popular support in their negotiations with the central government in Kiev, and it underlined how fully Ukraine has lost control of the region.
Rebel leaders have declared that an often-violated two-month-old cease-fire is dead, and last week they said they plan to take over more territory that is vital for the establishment of their state.
A Ukrainian military spokesman said Sunday that Russian military support had been flowing into eastern Ukraine in recent days, and witnesses on Sunday reported long columns of unmarked military trucks traveling into the rebel stronghold of Donetsk. Ahead of the vote, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would recognize the results.
“I voted for peace and the future of our republic,” rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said after voting, RIA Novosti reported. After the elections, he said, Kiev “will recognize us, give us our land back without a fight, and we will establish good diplomatic relations.”
Zakharchenko, a former electrician at an eastern Ukrainian mine, took over leadership of rebels in the Donetsk region from a Russian citizen in early August. He was running Sunday against two little-known candidates. The leader of rebels in the Luhansk region, Igor Plotnitsky, a Soviet armed forces veteran and former civil servant, also was expected to win.
Rebels had no access to voter registration rolls, and anyone could vote at any polling place he or she wanted, as well as online. Polling stations were crowded, with long lines, although there were fewer polling stations than for the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in 2012, and it was difficult to establish meaningful turnout figures. Many residents have fled to other parts of Ukraine and to Russia.
Some witnesses saw gunmen at some of the polling stations. At other voting locations, people were selling cut-rate onions, cabbage and carrots.
Russian lawmakers loyal to the Kremlin said that after the elections they may step up support for the rebels and the breakaway state they call New Russia.
“The elections that are taking place today are lawful and civilized forms of realizing the right to self-determination for the people of New Russia,” Sergei Zheleznyak, the vice-speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, said in a statement on the Web site of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political party, United Russia.
Ukraine’s leaders were far less sanguine about the vote. Ukraine’s Security Service said Sunday that it had launched a criminal inquiry into the elections, and it declared persona non grata several far-right European politicians who had arrived in eastern Ukraine to watch the elections.
“Ukraine and the entire civilized world will not accept this farce,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “I hope that Russia does not recognize these pseudo-elections!”
Rebels appear to be seeking to establish an enclave similar to Transnistria in Moldova or South Ossetia in Georgia, two spots in former Soviet republics that the Kremlin has used to maintain leverage over national governments.
But the rebel-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine are still deeply dependent on Kiev for electricity and other key resources. Rebels have struggled to find ways to pay civil servants and pensions, for which the Kiev government is no longer footing the bill, in the territory they control
The separatist conflict began after Russia-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by protesters in February. Russia then annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and separatist protesters seized eastern Ukrainian government buildings and territory starting in April. The fighting has killed more than 4,000 people, according to U.N. estimates, including hundreds since the cease-fire went into force Sept. 5.