Anger at a Kiev backed counter-terrorism operation has pushed many in eastern Ukraine into voting “yes” to an uncertain future in a rebel organized referendum.
Today, transparent ballot boxes were slowly filling with “yes” votes as voters in pro-Russia rebel-controlled regions of Ukraine’s east headed to the polls to decide the future of the region.
But there was little consensus over what, exactly, they were voting for.
From Donetsk to Mariupol, hundreds of volunteers worked late into Saturday night to prepare polling stations across the region, stapling curtains up around polling booths and hastily scratching Ukrainian crests from ballot boxes.
The voting ballot asked just one yes or no question. But the use of the Russian word “samostoyatelnost,” which can translate as anything from full-blown secession to a more tepid form federalization, left voters confused about what their ballot actually meant.
“I voted for independence,” said 38-year-old camouflage clad militia member, Vitaly, as he cast his vote in Sloviansk. “I was born in the Soviet Union when there were no borders between Russia and Ukraine and that’s how we want it to be again,” he told VICE News.
But, in stark contrast polling station manager, 42-year-old Irina insisted the vote had nothing to do with secession.
“Either way we will still be in Ukraine tomorrow,” she told VICE News as she bustled between voters loudly issuing instructions to her team.
Other voters told VICE News they hoped it was just a stepping-stone on the path to a Crimea style annexation by Moscow, and by the end of the day rumors were already spreading like wildfire that another referendum would be held next weekend on whether to join with Russia.
Areas in eastern Ukraine went to the polls on May 11 in a vote on regional independence.
Polling stations across Donetsk and Luhansk opened for a referendum on the regions’ independence on May 11.
“It’s slippery,” admitted 35-year-old Svetlana, a volunteer at her local polling station in Sloviansk, as she studied the ballot paper perplexed. “I’m not sure,” admitted the peroxide blonde finally. “I guess it leaves us open to several possibilities” she told VICE News.
Local rebel leaders don’t seem much clearer on where they’re headed after the vote is in — at times saying they hope to head towards Moscow, while also emphasizing the importance of forming their own independent state.
The militia who organized the vote across the region, have commandeered the Russian flag, which billows alongside that of the Donetsk People’s Republic, but strongly insist they are not separatists.
For its part, the government in Kiev has denounced the vote as “illegal” and a “criminal farce soaked in blood.” Its western allies have also refused to recognize the vote.
On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande said they would back further sanctions against Russia if Ukraine's presidential election failed to go ahead because of disruption in the east.
The pro-Russia rebels have seized state administration and security buildings across the region, sometimes peacefully, but often under the barrel of a gun.
Yet, while armed men in balaclavas cradling Kalashnikovs guarded the polling stations in Sloviansk, those such as polling station manager, Irina — working to make the vote happen inside were about as far away from your traditional idea of a rebel as possible, as were the voters.
Anja, a 28-year-old housewife, who came to the polling station with her seven month old baby said she was voting for the Donetsk Republic to give her child a better life.
“I want all the money to remain in Donbas, to stop being robbed by the government in Kiev,” she said.
Protesters came out in Crimea’s Simferopol on Sunday, May 11, to show support for the separatist cause in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk.
The pro-Russia forces, who have seized control of pockets of Ukraine’s east, have garnered more public support on the back of an aggressive and clumsy anti-terror operation which, in the last week alone, has killed dozens of rebels, as well as several citizens caught in crossfire.
Kiev’s decision to send in hastily formed groups of allegedly nationalist fighters, dubbed “the Men in Black” because of
their uniform color and lack of identifying insignia, has only fueled the fear and anger — feeding into the rebels’ rhetoric that the government are a “fascist junta” persecuting the region’s Russian speaking majority.
Indeed, just hours before the polls opened on Sunday, gunfire rattled and explosions echoed through the night air as rebels clashed with the Ukrainian army on the outskirts of the city into the early hours.
Lounging around a barricade constructed from rusty train wagons at the foot of the hill where Ukrainians troops are holding their position at a TV tower, armed militia claimed that they had been attacked with heavy gunfire and mortars the night before.
“They did it to try and stop the referendum, there’s no other explanation. We fired back but we were just defending ourselves,” 32-year-old Vitaliy, a militia fighter with knife tucked in his belt and an automatic weapon over his shoulder told VICE News. Smashed out holes in the ground and unexploded mortars littered the surrounding area.
However, in a picture that is, as ever, as clear as mud, Yvengeny, a 35-year-old militia commander of another unit, claimed to VICE News that the rebels provoked the fight.
Today, shots were fired by armed men — reportedly to be Ukrainian National Guard members, during a confrontation with a crowd that had gathered in the eastern Ukrainian city of Krasnoarmiysk.
Either way already incensed locals blame the government in Kiev.
“We were terrified,” said Galina, a former nursery school teacher, who hid in the household cellar with her family as mortars reigned down just a couple of kilometers away. “My mother-in-law lived through the war, so it was very traumatic for her, we don’t want to live like this anymore” added the 54-year-old who said she had today voted “yes.”
In Sloviansk, the local militia leader turned people’s mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, has become something of a local celebratory attracting hundreds of adoring female fans who on Victory Day presented him with chocolate and other gifts, while snapping a quick
selfie. “He’s fabulous, he has saved this city, from these Kiev murderers,” crooned one fan.
Yet, anger at Kiev’s actions, does not necessarily equate to support for the rebels. Despite Ponomarev’s confident prediction of a 100 percent turnout, by the afternoon, the morning’s steady stream of voters had dwindled to a mere trickle.
Most people VICE News spoke to were glowing about the referendum, but one woman from Konstantinovka, who asked not to be named said that pro-Ukrainians, who wanted to vote “no” stayed at home. Others who spoke with VICE News were reticent about their decision to not vote, claiming that they were unable to take a five-minute break from work.
For those not so keen to join the rebel camp the picture is bleak.
Since taking power the local militia leaders have made clear that there is little room for opposition.
Kidnappings, and even murders, of those considered hostile to the new regime have become commonplace in the region.
Speaking at a press conference the day before the vote, Ponomarev, who has a penchant for chucking troublesome journalists and activists in his basement prison said that, “now, in a time of war we don’t have time for hostages, we will kill them all.”
Officials expect to have the referendum results on Monday morning.
At a press conference this evening in Sloviansk, the reported turnout was around 80 percent but only 30 percent of the votes have been counted so far. There were no independent monitors at the polling station today.
One district accounted for had 1,505 yes votes and 23 against. "This is pretty much the same situation at every station" said a referendum volunteer.