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Referendum Vote Commences in Ukraine

Eastern Ukraine goes to the polls over the possibility of secession. But does it even matter?
By Tova Dvorin
First Publish: 5/11/2014, 7:00 PM

Referendum materials in Donetsk
Referendum materials in Donetsk
Reuters

Polls opened in eastern Ukraine Sunday, as a controversial referendum vote commenced debating Donetsk's secession and independence. 

Fears in the region have reached record heights over the past several weeks, with politicians alleging that the atmosphere points to a de facto civil war.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people in Luhansk, Slaviansk, Donetsk, and elsewhere flooded polling stations Sunday despite lingering violence.

Throngs of residents arrived early to the voting stations, hoping that the vote - which observers say is decidedly ad-hoc - could resolve a weeks-long conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian militants. 

The conditions of the referendum vote add to the controversy. Ballots were printed out on home printers and copiers in several towns, reporters noted to the New York Times and Reuters, and little to no security personnel were present at voting stations.

In Donetsk, for example, the ballot boxes are transparent; so far, all of the votes are apparently for autonomy. 

Ukrainian officials continued to smear the voters' campaign Sunday, with some claiming that the vote is a cover-up for more vandalism and violence in the region.

"This is not a referendum," Presidential Administration Head Sergey Pashinski stated at a news conference. "This is a desultory attempt by killers and terrorists to cover their activity." Ukraine's Interior Ministry called the referendum a criminal farce, its ballot papers "soaked in blood."  

And the winner is. . .confusion

Confusion reigns at the ballot boxes Sunday - and not just because of the impromptu elections.

On the ground, the voting stations themselves are in disarray - with little to no security, clear ballot boxes, and unclear questions. Sky News reports that at least one polling station saw the ballot boxes put out on the street after lines continued to grow. 

But beyond that, analysts note, it remains unclear whether or not the vote means anything - in light of contradicting statistics over the voter turnout, widespread international condemnation, and conflicting views over secession from within eastern Ukraine itself. 

BBC News reported Sunday that 77% of Ukrainians wish to see the country stay intact. However, the numbers also show sharp divisions by region - and conflicting views over linguistic-national identity which threaten the fabric of stability in the region. 

The Pew Research Center also released its own report earlier this month, claiming that 70% of eastern Ukraine wants to keep the region united, with a mere 18% favoring secession.

Meanwhile, analysts say the vote may come to nothing at all - as eastern Ukrainian residents who oppose the referendum have simply boycotted the vote completely.

“It’s as if I declared my backyard sovereign,” said Dmitri Dmitrenko, 22, a pro-Ukrainian resident, told the New York Times.  “It has no more legitimacy or historical justification.”

International condemnation

The referendum will end at 10:00 pm local time, with separatists set to publish the results Monday.

The vote will not be recognized internationally, however - not by Kiev, not by the West, and possibly not by Russia itself. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin called off the referendum vote last week, urging the separatists to reconsider; the separatists declined

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed Sunday that the US will also not recognize the move. 

The referendums, according to Psaki, “are illegal under Ukrainian law, and are an attempt to create further division and disorder,” adding that if they proceed, “they will violate international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

landmark deal reached last month between Russia, the US and the European Union (EU) called for the separatists, who have been seizing government buildings in eastern Ukraine for several days, to disarm and stand down - in exchange for amnesty. 

The pro-Russian protesters have largely ignored the deal, claiming that the agreement does not apply to them.