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Ukraine's Separatist Rebel Republics Hold First Election

Despite irregularities, voter turnout appeared to be high, highlighting how the protracted conflict in eastern Ukraine has fueled anger with Kiev.
Photo by Harriet Salem

Felled trees sprawl across the shrapnel-blasted tarmac road. Freshly dug trenches scar the fields. Tank barrels point across the windy no man's land.

Several times a week, this winding route — the only way in and out of the Sakhanka, a small village in eastern Ukraine — comes under a barrage of rocket fire during clashes between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces. Sometimes, the rockets miss and hit the village.


"It's a miracle no one has died yet," Piotr Yvchenko, head of the local council, told VICE News. "I think it is because people are praying so hard for peace. Several shells have hit houses and gardens."

While most the region has been relatively calm for the last week, a spokesman for the Novoazovsk region of the breakaway Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) told VICE News that Sakhanka's proximity to the frontline makes it "one of the most dangerous places to live" in the rebel-held territory.

Despite the risks, a steady stream of people still trickled through the village's polling station Sunday to cast ballots in the first election in the separatist territories since the armed uprising in Ukraine's east began in mid-April.

The vote failed to meet mainstream Western standards. It was a one-horse race with no real competition challenging the incumbent authorities. Ballots were cast under the guard of armed men, and without proper electoral rolls. A motley assortment of "international observers" that included Russian Cossacks and extremist European politicians monitored the polls.

Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the acting prime minister of the DPR, appeared headed for an easy victory.

Despite the irregularities — and the fact that only Russia and a handful of other former Soviet states currently recognize the breakaway republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, known collectively as NovoRossiya — voter turnout appeared to be high, highlighting how the protracted conflict has fueled anger with Kiev.


Eastern Ukraine plunges ahead with controversial vote to elect separatist leaders. Read more here.

According to the DPR Central Election Commission, more than 1 million people cast ballots. With roughly 50 percent of the votes tallied Sunday night, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the acting prime minister of the DPR, appeared headed for an easy victory.

Exit polls had Zakharchenko, who ran virtually unopposed, receiving more than 81 percent of the votes. Alexander Kophman and Yuri Sivokonenko, who both opted for low-profile campaigns, each received roughly nine percent of the votes for prime minister.

The Donetsk Republic party, founded by pro-Russian activist and incumbent DPR deputy prime minister Andrei Purgin, received roughly 65 percent of the votes for parliament, according to the exit polls. The Free Donbas party received slightly less than 35 percent of the votes.

Voters crowd around registration tables in Novoazovsk. (Photo by Harriet Salem)

In a crowded polling station in Novoazovsk, Ana Shchezbakova explained how she helped organize the election for the Ukrainian president back in May but is now supporting the rebel vote.

"Everything changed over the summer," she told VICE News. "I saw the refugees on the television. There was the shelling in Sloviansk and then everywhere else. It was then I realized there was no way back to a united Ukraine. By the time the DNR [Donetsk People's Republic] came here, it was a relief."

The lengthy lines to vote are likely another blow to the government in Kiev, which, despite continuing talk of "decentralization," has allowed de facto secession to occur in the rebel-held east.


Evidence of the split was abundant Sunday. In Novoazovsk, a newly established "NovoRossiya Border Guard Service" inspected vehicles and passports before waving them through the crossing into Russia.

"We don't have a stamp yet so we can't let internationals though, but most people are just locals crossing over to see family and friends from Russia," Andriy, a former-Ukrainian border guard who defected along with around half the crossing's personnel, told VICE News. "We have very good relations with the Russian side and the insurance and money exchange kiosk opened a week ago, so things are pretty much running as usual."

Video shows Russian actor firing machine guns with fighters in eastern Ukraine. Read more here.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces are digging into their positions in preparation for what promises to be a long, cold winter. Yet, despite the ongoing conflict, there are tentative signs that Kiev is reluctantly accepting the new status quo.

In Dontesk, between the towns of Kurakhovo and Maryinka, freshly painted white lines in the road marked a new checkpoint near the frontline where armed Ukrainian border patrol units took the unusual step of noting down license plates and recording details of foreign passports.

"This is not a border, it's just a frontier," a guard at the station told VICE News choosing his words carefully. "I can't say any more."

As the heavy and random fighting of the summer months has increasingly become confined to flashpoint areas, thousands of people have returned to their homes in the east, where shops, businesses, and schools are slowly reopening.


Rebel authorities organized a discount produce sale outside a polling station in Iloviask. (Photo by Harriet Salem)

But life in the rebel republics is still far from ideal. Much of the infrastructure has been heavily damaged in the fighting. Outside a polling station in Iloviask — a town subject to nearly a month of heavy shelling as the two warring sides battled for control of the area — a state-subsidized vegetable sale attracted long lines. Many people have not received social welfare payments for five months.

Waiting in line for her discounted cabbage, onions and potatoes — sold at a fraction of the store price — 70-year-old Galina Budnikova told VICE News her whole apartment block went out to vote together and then celebrated with a cup of tea at the local bakery.

Russian Roulette. Watch all the VICE News dispatches here.

"We didn't really get in to the politics of who to vote for, we just want to have an authority to go to where local problems can be heard and dealt with," Budnikova said, describing being trapped in her basement for nearly four weeks when her town came under heavy bombardment. "We cannot stand this one more time. The main thing now is to have peace."

Like many other voters Sunday, Budnikova hoped the election would somehow bring an end to the fighting. But it remains far from certain whether the rebels — who have built their republic on a doctrine war — will suddenly be ready to lay down their arms.

Near Donetsk city, as Sunday's final voters were heading to the polling station, a large convoy of military vehicles and grad rockets rumbled along the road. It was an ominous reminder that peace is still some distance away.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem