Donetsk, Ukraine – Signs of a conflict are everywhere in war-torn Donetsk, but with glimmers of normalcy. Shelling can still be heard despite a ceasefire, but that doesn’t deter pedestrians in this rebel-held city in eastern Ukraine.
Roads remain relatively empty in what was once home to about one million people, however.
On one street in the city centre, a shoe store blares dance music from its entrance. Next door, a shop is closed up with tape across its windows – a common sight here as the adhesive protects the glass from shattering during artillery fire.
Most businesses have closed, some boarded up, but the grocery stores that remain open are well-stocked.
At night, the few bars operating are visited by women in full make-up and heels who stand next to booths filled with men carrying rifles and wearing camouflage. Old billboards advertising spring clothing dot a main road, oblivious to a recent snowfall.
Rebels in control of the area have moved the local time an hour ahead, matching Moscow, although many electronic devices remain on the previous schedule. On improvised police cars are the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) flag and a siren stuck on the hood.
On Sunday, residents had an election for leaders in Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk with gunmen lurking around polling stations.
Pro-Russia separatist Alexander Zakharchenko, who previously worked as an electrician, won with more than 81 percent of the vote. His victory was widely expected, with only two much-less known competitors.
Roman Lyagin, head of the rebel election commission, said the lack of competition was because some parties were rejected for not following rules.
|Election official Roman Lyagin [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]
“I think people respect us for this because we did not compromise our vision for anyone,” he told Al Jazeera.
In Luhansk, an ex-Soviet army officer, Igor Plotnitsky, won by a similarly large margin.
Lyagin admitted the vote was organised in a hurry, but pointed out that Russia recognised the election. He called the Donetsk People’s Republic a separate sovereign state, adding the vote was for its people.
“We are not part of Ukraine, we are in a state of war with Ukraine, and the war will last until we free our territories occupied by Ukraine,” Lyagin said.
Local resident Ivan Skoropad who came out to vote, said his passport is Ukrainian, but his views are Russian.
“Why can Kiev take over power and we can’t?”
Skoropad said he hasn’t worked in months but believes the vote will turn the eastern region’s fortunes around by increasing manufacturing and stabilising relations with other countries.
“I’m not afraid because everything is going to be renewed really soon and fixed. It’s not going to be 10 or more years, it’s going to be soon.”
At 31 years old, Skoropad was an exception in the poll line-ups on Sunday, which were overwhelmingly filled with middle-aged or elderly voters such as Grigory Vasiliyevich.
|Tree planting was organised before the vote to show Donetsk was being taken care [Kristina Jovanovski]
Vasiliyevich came from his village that is occupied by the Ukrainian army to vote in Donetsk, and to show his support for the DPR, as he did in the referendum in May on independence.
He blamed the United States for starting the conflict, accusing Washington of putting mercenaries at Kiev’s Independence Square to stir up violence after protests against the government of former president Viktor Yanukovich kicked off last November.
As for the future of the eastern regions?
“They should be independent … [but] they should be in a tight union with Russia,” Vasiliyevich said.
Russia said the vote does not violate the ceasefire deal signed in September. In a statement on Monday, Moscow urged talks between Kiev and the newly elected leaders in Donbass, as the heavily industrial eastern regions are known collectively.
“In view of the elections, it is extremely important to take active steps towards promoting sustained dialogue between central Ukrainian authorities and the representatives of the Donbass,” the Russian statement said.
The Ukrainian government, the European Union and the US denounced the election. On Monday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the vote was “against the letter and spirit” of the ceasefire.
Since the ceasefire, civilian deaths have continued but fighting seems to have decreased. More than 4,000 people have died in the conflict that started seven months ago, according to the United Nations.
Ukrainian President Petro publicly called the Sunday election a “farce [conducted] under the barrels of tanks and machine guns”.
It is difficult to gauge how much support there is for separatists here in the east. In previous votes, pro-Ukrainians have said they would not cast ballots, and rebels have threatened citizens displaying affection for a united Ukraine.
At one voting station on Sunday, an elderly man was talking to a journalist about how he was against the rebels when a security guard motioned to have workers usher him out.
Outside the building, 79-year-old Ivan, who did not want to give his last name, said he supported the Ukrainian army and wanted the country to remain together.
A woman heading to the polling station interrupted him to say people who live in the west are lazy and do not want to work. That is a common complaint from separatists in the east who live in Ukraine’s industrial heartland and feel their tax money is wasted on the whims of those in the west.
Money is also an issue for Ivan, who has not received a pension in four months – also common in war-torn areas. He said he cannot leave because he has nowhere to go, and his son is sick in the hospital while his daughter has a business she cannot relocate.
Is he not afraid to so publicly express his opposition to the separatists?
If you look at the universe of protracted conflicts in this part of the world, most of those started nearly a quarter of a century ago, and there's no sign they're about to end.
“I’m old. If they kill me, whatever.”
Ivan mocked the election, saying he or any regular person could decide to set up their own country.
“It’s kind of a game,” he said.
Robert Legvold, emeritus professor at Columbia University who specialises in Russian and Ukrainian foreign policy, said the vote will only worsen relations.
“It’s going to move us farther away from any cooperation,” he told Al Jazeera.
Legvold warned the conflict had become Europe’s most dangerous. He said all sides had become trapped in their positions on the conflict, and no one knows when peace can be restored in the region.
“People who keep talking about these elections and other things in the context that they are getting in the way of a political settlement … are kidding themselves,” said Legvold.
“If you look at the universe of protracted conflicts in this part of the world, most of those started nearly a quarter of a century ago and there’s no sign they’re about to end, and no indication that anyone knows how to end them.”