A rebel "election" held this weekend in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics has struck another nail into the coffin of Ukraine's beleaguered peace process, with President Petro Poroshenko branding the vote a "farce" and threatening to renege on a promise to give special status to the eastern regions.
Addressing the nation on TV late on Monday evening, Poroshenko denounced the election as a "brutal violation" of the Minsk truce deal agreed by both warring parties in Ukraine on September 5. The move by the rebels had endangered "the entire peace process," he insisted.
On Tuesday, Poroshenko said he had ordered in more army units to protect cities in the east, following a special meeting of the security council in Kiev.
Despite the president's warnings, hundreds of people in Donetsk gathered to watch inauguration of their newly "elected" president, Alexander Zakharchenko, in the city's music and drama theater.
Swearing his oath of loyalty to the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic" (DPR) with his hand on a bible, Zakharchenko thanked people for voting for him. "I will not let you down, this is the first essential step to building a state," he told the packed auditorium on Tuesday afternoon.
A former mine engineer and leader of the Donetsk branch of the Russian nationalist paramilitary unit Oplot, Zakharchenko was internally appointed as acting prime minister of the rebel republic back in August but finally received a public mandate on Sunday to continue as leader, securing more than 80 percent of the vote according to the results published by the DPR's Central Election Commission.
The ceremony was briefly marred by rebels' inability to release a net of red, black and blue balloons — the colors of the DPR — over the audience but the rest of the program, which included poetry recitals, traditional Russian folk music and dance performances, went smoothly. Congratulatory speeches were delivered by VIP guest speakers Aleksey Guravliov, a member of the Russian Unity party and a deputy in the Russian Duma, and Anatoly Bibilov a speaker in the parliament of South Ossetia.
Poroshenko, an oligarch nicknamed the "Chocolate King" due to his substantial investments in the confectionary industry, called the vote a "pseudo-election and a "farce [held] at gunpoint."
However, the president's threat to scrap the special status law agreed in the Minsk Protocol is in practice little more than a symbolic gesture. Despite a summer long military campaign, Ukraine has failed to make significant inroads into rebel-held territories, where pro-Russia forces have received a steady flow of arms and men from their sympathetic eastern neighbor.
According to the latest UN report nearly than 4,000 people have been killed in fighting since the so-called People's Republics made unilateral declarations of independence in April. More than 300 deaths have been recorded since the supposed ceasefire came into effect.
The heavy-handed response by Kiev also appears to be losing the battle for hearts and minds in the region, where crowded polling stations and snaking queues on the rebel election day showed the depth of local disillusionment.
While Russia has recognized the result and called the poll "an important step in legitimizing [the rebel republics] authority," Ukraine's western allies joined Kiev in condemning the vote — which took place under the guard of armed men and without a proper electoral register — as farcical.
In a statement released on Monday, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the election was "contrary to the letter and spirit" of the Minsk deal and "a new obstacle on the path towards peace."
Criticism also came flooding in from senior state officials. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, warned Russia could face further sanctions as a result of its position whilst the US ambassador to the OSCE, Daniel Baer, called the vote "illegitimate" and accused Russia of "acting in defiance of international law."
In February this year, unmarked soldiers appeared in the Ukrainian region of Crimea following a bogus "referendum," and in March, Russia illegally annexed the territory. Recent reports from international journalists of equipment, including arms and vehicles, arriving in the country's east have sparked concerns that a similar move might be made there in the wake of the rebel election.
In a Pentagon press briefing on Monday morning, General Breedlove, commander of US and NATO forces in Europe, said that Ukraine's border with Russia was "wide open," allowing military equipment and supplied to "flow back and forth freely." He also noted that as fighting between pro-Russia forces and Kiev's troops continued, the western frontline was "hardening" and "becoming more like a border between two states."
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