DONETSK, Ukraine — Rebels in eastern Ukraine are seeking to harness anger at the government with a hastily organized and vaguely worded referendum Sunday that they hope will legitimize their uprising, even if it falls short of giving them a legal mandate to declare an independent state.
With Ukraine perilously close to civil war and drunken mobs rampaging through the streets of the port city of Mariupol on Saturday, the separatists say the vote could pave the way for a political solution by showing that the people support their movement.
Yet the vote is equally likely to deepen the divisions that are ripping the country apart. The government in Kiev has denounced the referendum as illegal and unconstitutional, and many observers say it lacks any credibility. Opponents of the pro-Russian separatists who have seized power in eastern Ukraine may decide to boycott a vote they see as rigged.
The language of the referendum leaves plenty of room for interpretation, asking voters whether they support what could be translated either as “independence” or “self-determination” for the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic.
Separatist leaders, who call the government in Kiev illegitimate, say they are not necessarily seeking outright independence or a union with Russia, at least not for the time being.
“A ‘yes’ vote does not mean that the Donetsk region will become part of Russia, or stay in Ukraine, or become an independent state,” Roman Lyagin, the head of the rebel election commission, said at a news conference Saturday.
“It means that we will receive the support of a majority of the inhabitants of the region and the moral right to state that we are not happy with the events in our country and demand changes. We want to choose another path for this region.”
Lyagin’s comments could be interpreted as a softening of the rebels’ stance, but it is equally likely that the rebels are trying to inspire a wider protest vote against the government to legitimize their uprising. The confusion, in other words, is likely to work in their favor.
Lyagin, 33, a former political consultant, has said he wants the region to become part of Russia. Denis Pushilin, a prominent separatist leader, spoke last week about “sovereignty” rather than “independence,” but then suggested he wanted a situation comparable to that in Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 and is now recognized by more than 100 other nations.
While Russia would almost certainly embrace a “yes” vote as a sign of the rebels’ popularity, Ukraine’s government has been joined by the United States and Western Europe in dismissing the vote.
On Saturday, the U.S. State Department called the referendum illegal and “an attempt to create further division and disorder” and said the United States would not recognize the results if the vote proceeds. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also called the referendum “illegal,” while French President François Hollande said it carries “no weight,” the Associated Press reported.
The rebels rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise call last week for the referendum to be postponed, arguing that they would lose popular trust if they did so. Lyagin said he could go to jail for 10 to 15 years for his role in organizing the vote and suggested that only a mandate from the people could save him.
“It will legitimize us in society all over the world,” he said.
Opponents of the referendum are already casting doubt on its legitimacy, however. Ukrainian news media issued a video and photographs that purported to show three men who had been caught on the outskirts of Slovyansk on Saturday with weapons and a trunk full of ballots already filled in with “yes” votes.
On Thursday, Ukraine’s state security service released an audio recording in which a Russian nationalist politician allegedly advises a separatist leader who expressed concerns about organizing the vote to simply declare that 99 percent of the people, or “let’s say 89 percent,” had voted “yes.”
The authenticity of the recording could not be verified, and separatists say it is a fake. It nevertheless encapsulates a widespread feeling here that the referendum’s outcome has been fixed.
Lyagin said he is determined to stage a transparent, objective vote and that there will be no foreign observers, apart from journalists, only because no one offered to come.
There are few barriers to fraud. The only list of voters is two years out of date, but one official said that anyone who turns up with a passport will be allowed to vote. The ballots lack any markings that could prevent them from being widely copied. The only people who will be manning the polling stations and counting the votes are the same activists who support a “yes” vote.
Lyagin said his team is spending just $1,700 to stage what he calls a “people’s referendum.” Volunteers at the polling stations will not be paid and have been asked to supply their own pens; most of the budget appears to have been spent on paper to print nearly 3.2 million ballot slips and on ink for three borrowed ink-jet printers.
The effort's low budget seems partly designed to counter suspicions that the rebellion has the financial backing of Russia or of local oligarchs.
Lyagin did not say who had paid for the billboards that appeared across Donetsk last week urging people to vote “yes” and to choose between fascists in western Ukraine carrying molotov cocktails and axes and peaceful miners in the east carrying flowers.
After several days of violence in Mariupol, Lyagin said, the separatists might struggle to conduct the vote in the southeastern city. Ukraine’s armed forces arrested many militants in Mariupol on Wednesday, and Lyagin said the rebels were coordinating the situation there “on the run” and would conduct the referendum “where it is possible.”
Drunken mobs roamed the otherwise deserted city center of Mariupol on Saturday as the security situation there took another turn for the worse. The city council called a day of mourning after Friday’s heavy fighting between pro-Russian militants and Ukrainian security forces left at least seven people dead.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said that Mariupol’s police chief had been abducted by rebels during the fighting.
In another sign of the collapsing morale of Ukraine’s security forces, members of the national guard evacuated their barracks in the city Saturday morning, apparently in a hurry. They left behind at least three armored personnel carriers, riot shields, helmets, gas masks and clothes, which were promptly looted, witnesses said.
In the city center, militants set fire to a broken-down infantry fighting vehicle that the army had been forced to abandon the previous day. But their failure to empty it of all its ammunition caused a series of explosions that led some of their comrades to set fire to their barricades, fearing another attack, a witness said.
In the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, a group of police also laid down their weapons when their camp on the outskirts of the city came under attack by two truckloads of heavily armed militants Friday evening. The police surrendered 70 automatic rifles and 16,000 cartridges, an officer said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Militants held nine Red Cross workers — eight Ukrainians and one Swiss — hostage for seven hours in Donetsk, beating one of them before freeing them early Saturday, a Red Cross official said, according to Reuters. A spokesman for the rebels said the workers had been detained Friday evening on suspicion of espionage.
Lyagin insisted that Ukraine’s presidential election scheduled for May 25 could not go ahead in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
In Kiev, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov again called on rebellious citizens to work out their differences at the bargaining table, saying the government was willing to discuss more local control and guarantee minority rights for ethnic Russians.
But he warned that supporters of independence for the east “don’t understand that this would be a complete destruction of the economy, social programs and general life for the majority of the population.”
“This is a step into the abyss for the regions,” he said in comments posted on the presidential Web site.
Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed people’s mayor of Slovyansk, said the rebels had decided to adopt a “take-no-prisoners” approach in future clashes with the Ukrainian Army.
“We had an unspoken agreement that we do not open fire on regular soldiers of the army,” Ponomaryov said, according to a report on Radio Liberty. But he said the rebels would go all-out now because soldiers from the 95th Airborne Brigade had killed civilians in a town just outside Donetsk.
“We decided that now we will not take prisoners, we will kill them all,” Ponomaryov said, according to Radio Liberty. According to the news outlet, Ponomaryov said the militants believe that the more ruthless they are, the faster the Ukrainian military will respect them.