Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine declared victory in a secession referendum Sunday, ratcheting up tensions between the West and Moscow, which by recognizing the results could push the country toward a breakup. Ukraine called the vote illegal and riddled with irregularities, and part of a wider campaign by Moscow to punish Kiev for pursuing closer relations with Europe. But Sunday’s vote saw long lines at some polling places and was immediately hailed as a triumph by separatist leaders and Russian state media. Kiev’s fledgling government is scrambling to mount presidential elections May 25, which it hopes will shore up its legitimacy, and faces growing hurdles after losing control of provinces in the east to pro-Russian rebels. Local police in the region are of dubious loyalty, and army units have stalled in their offensive against rebel strongholds.
With its options to keep the country together narrowing, the Ukrainian government is under increasing pressure from Moscow to create a new federal state structure that would give regions control over economic, foreign and cultural policy. That would likely cripple Ukraine’s attempts to integrate with the European Union.
The long waits to cast ballots at some voting stations Sunday suggested that weeks of instability and violence in the region had helped turn simmering anger against Kiev into open defiance and separatism that polls showed barely existed earlier this year.
Amid an absence of electoral observers and a heavy presence of separatist gunmen patrolling the streets, the government in Kiev said the results of the vote were certain to be rigged. Just after midnight in Donetsk, the separatists said 89% of ballots had been cast in favor of “self rule,” with 10% against and 1% invalid. Turnout was 75%, they said in a statement.