Polls have opened in two regions of eastern Ukraine in controversial leadership elections held by pro-Russia separatists that Kiev and the West have refused to recognise and which threatens to deepen the international crisis over the conflict.
The elections on Sunday in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, which are based around the two main rebel-held cities, are designed to bring a degree of legitimacy to the makeshift military regimes that already control them.
Both are choosing new presidents and parliaments, but there is little question that the current unelected rebel chiefs – Alexander Zakharchenko in Donetsk and Igor Plotnitsky in Luhansk – will be confirmed in their posts.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Donetsk, said that Zakharchenko was behaving more like a statesman than a rebel leader, telling his constituents that the vote would pave the way towards kick-starting the economy.
“The people here want peace with Ukraine, but they also want their own views to be recognised,” she said. “It is a vote for legitimacy for the leadership, and a vote of hope for peace for the people who cast their ballots.”
Break from Ukraine
Zakharchenko, she added, had implied that there were still some areas that the separatists needed to take to form their republic, and that force would be used if negotiations failed.
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Voting in the main rebel city of Donetsk proceeded in the presence of gunmen inside three polling stations, the AP news agency reported.
Election organisers have cast the vote as a decisive development in the break from Ukrainian rule by the mainly Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
About half the territory of those areas is held by separatist forces.
Lyubov Khatsko, 55, who came to vote from the town of Marinka, just west of Donetsk, expressed despair at the continued unrest rocking her hometown.
“We have the right to have our own election, our freedom and to live the way we want to. We want the Ukrainians to get out of here,” she said.
Meanwhile, Kiev opened a criminal case in connection with the elections under the article on “forceful change or overthrow of constitutional order, the seizure of power”.
The Ukraine’s security service (SBU) announced the move on its Facebook page, referring to the self-declared republics as terrorist organisations.
No international election monitors will be present for the vote, and no minimum turnout has been set by the organisers, reflecting the uncertainty over how many voters will bother turning out.
“These elections are important because they will give legitimacy to our power and give us more distance from Kiev,” said Roman Lyagin, election commission chief of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
Russia, which denies formenting the rebellion, has stated it will recognise the election results.
That infuriated Ukraine’s pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko who referred to “the pseudo-elections that terrorists and bandits want to organise on occupied territory”.
The European Union and NATO have condemned the polls.
Moscow’s backing for the vote has sparked a new round of criticism from the West, which has said that sanctions against Russia will not be lifted until the Kremlin does more to help implement a repeatedly violated truce in Ukraine.
On Sunday, the Ukrainian military reported “intensive” movement of troops and equipment from Russia into the separatist controlled area in eastern Ukraine.
“There is intensive deployment of military equipment and personnel of the enemy from the territory of the Russian Federation onto territory temporarily controlled by insurgents,” Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the military, told a briefing in Kiev.
The war has claimed nearly 4,000 lives since it broke out in April, with rebels wresting control of much of Ukraine’s industrial southeast.
The truce signed on September 5, with Russia as one of the signatories, has stemmed the fighting but brought little sign of lasting peace. More than 300 people have died in the last 10 days alone, the United Nations said.