Acting Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov warned pro-Russian eastern regions they would be stepping into the abyss if they voted for self-rule yesterday in a referendum that has raised Western fears of a slide to full civil war.
Barricades of tires and scrap metal blocked streets in Mariupol and in Slaviansk, centers of an uprising that has unleashed the worst crisis between the West and Russia since the Cold War. There was a clash between army and rebels near Slaviansk late on Saturday, but fighting had largely abated.
For a vote on which so much hangs, the referendum in the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, which has declared itself a “People’s Republic,” seems a decidedly ad hoc affair.
Ballot papers have been printed with no security provision and the meaning of the question — asking voters if they support state “self-rule” for the People’s Republic of Donetsk — is, perhaps deliberately, unclear.
Some see in it endorsement of autonomy within Ukraine, some a move to independence and others a nod to absorption by Russia in the wake of Crimea, which Moscow annexed in March.
Annexation is favored by the more prominent rebels, but the ambiguity may reflect their fears that a full break would not garner enough support.
Turchinov is attempting to bring eastern political forces into a round table to discuss federal devolution, but says he will not deal with rebel leaders with blood on their hands.
He said secession from Ukraine “would be a step into the abyss for these regions... Those who stand for self-rule do not understand that it would mean complete destruction of the economy, social programs and life in general for the majority of the population.”
The loss of Ukraine’s coal and steel belt, which accounts for about 16 percent of national GDP, would be a severe loss for Kiev.
“A dreadful terror is in train with the support of a large part of the local population,” Turchinov said. “It is a complex problem when a population deceived by [Russian] propaganda support terrorists.”
Yesterday’s vote was going ahead despite a call by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to postpone it — a move that briefly raised hopes for an easing of tension.
Western leaders have accused Putin of destabilizing Ukraine, and the US criticized as “provocative” a trip he made to Crimea on Friday.
“We are disappointed that the Russian government has not used its influence to forestall these referenda, since President Putin’s suggestion on May 7 that they be postponed, when he also claimed that Russian forces were pulling back from the Ukrainian border,” US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement on Saturday.
“Unfortunately, we still see no Russian military movement away from the border, and today Kremlin-backed social media and news stations encouraged residents of eastern Ukraine to vote tomorrow, one even offering instructions for polling stations in Moscow. Russian state media also continue to strongly back the referenda with no mention of Putin’s call for postponement,” she added.
While most of the physical infrastructure appeared ready for the referendum, there appeared to be some confusion among residents about the choice they were being asked to make.
“What are the options? I’m for peace,” ethnic Azeri market-seller Assan Assanov said.
“That means you’re for the republic,” the woman at the neighboring stall told him.