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Rebel Elections Move Eastern Ukraine Closer To Russia

BuzzFeed News' Max Seddon reports from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.

Posted on November 2, 2014, at 12:22 p.m. ET

Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

PETRIVSKE, Ukraine — Two separatist rump states in eastern Ukraine are holding elections that they hope will cement their burgeoning de facto statehood, despite glaring irregularities, a swell of international condemnation, and growing fears of a fresh Russia-backed offensive.

Though the elections have no chance of winning formal recognition, the apparently high turnout and the ease with which rebels held them underscored Ukraine’s loss of control over parts of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces after months of war.

Kiev says the vote is illegal under Ukrainian law and filed criminal charges against its organizers on Sunday. The United Nations, U.S., and several European countries have also condemned the elections, which they claim are a glaring violation of a shaky ceasefire signed in September.
Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

Kiev says the vote is illegal under Ukrainian law and filed criminal charges against its organizers on Sunday. The United Nations, U.S., and several European countries have also condemned the elections, which they claim are a glaring violation of a shaky ceasefire signed in September.

Moscow, however, has vowed to respect the vote, which the Kremlin says is the only chance locals have to secure legitimate representation.

Rebels prevented Ukrainian parliamentary elections from going ahead a week ago and have vowed to stop a local Kiev-backed vote set for Dec. 7.
Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

Rebels prevented Ukrainian parliamentary elections from going ahead a week ago and have vowed to stop a local Kiev-backed vote set for Dec. 7.

Polling stations across the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republic saw long lines, despite cold, miserable weather.

Monitoring the exact turnout was difficult, since no international organization sent observers. The Donetsk People's Republic's election commission claimed that well over half a million people voted, while rebels in Luhansk said they would keep some stations open late because of long lines.
Max Seddon / BuzzFeed

Monitoring the exact turnout was difficult, since no international organization sent observers. The Donetsk People's Republic's election commission claimed that well over half a million people voted, while rebels in Luhansk said they would keep some stations open late because of long lines.

The large crowds across both territories may, however, have also been caused by the fact that were five times fewer polling stations than at slapdash independence referendums held in May.

Long lines for the Eastern Ukraine unrecognized rebel elections via @HromadskeTV

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Long lines for the Eastern Ukraine unrecognized rebel elections

via @HromadskeTV

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Rebels claimed this was because Ukraine subsequently reclaimed parts of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, which the separatists refer to as "occupied territories" they intend to reclaim.

Months of war, which displaced over a million people and considerably lowered locals' enthusiasm to join Russia, most likely also played a role.

Locals overwhelmingly blame Kiev for often indiscriminate shelling and rocket fire that has killed over 4,000 people, destroyed thousands of homes, and severely damaged crucial infrastructure, leaving many towns without electricity, heat, and running water.

Ukraine also stopped paying pensions, benefits, and public officials' salaries in the summer, but has provided little in the way of humanitarian aid, leaving many dependent on supplies sent illegally across the border by Russia.

Some polling stations sold voters vegetables and pies for 1 hryvnia (8 cents) — for many, the first proper food they had eaten in months.

Eastern Ukraine separatist vote: cast your ballot, get vegetables almost for free via @HromadskeTV

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Eastern Ukraine separatist vote: cast your ballot, get vegetables almost for free

via @HromadskeTV

12:22 PM - 02 Nov 14ReplyRetweetFavorite

Many other people stood in long lines regardless, reflecting the high degree of antipathy for the Ukrainian government here.

Очередь на избирательных участках в Луганске #Луганск 2 ноября 2014

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"I changed my mind because of the war," Larissa Rudenko, 47, told BuzzFeed News outside an abandoned house being used as a polling station in the bombed-out village of Petrivske. "We never really said we wanted to go to Russia, but since then everyone's been touched by this."

There is virtually no chance the elections will gain widespread recognition. Rebels had no access to voter rolls and no obvious mechanism to prevent fraud.

Locals could vote at any polling station simply by showing their registration and signing their name. Donetsk People's Republic election chief Roman Lyagin claimed over 50,000 people also took part in online absentee voting, which simply required them to send a scan of their ID. Ukraine's security service registered a voter with a fake ID and a ridiculous name, Burenka Telenkovna Maslenkova, indicating that the person in question was a cow.
Max Seddon / BuzzFeed

Locals could vote at any polling station simply by showing their registration and signing their name. Donetsk People's Republic election chief Roman Lyagin claimed over 50,000 people also took part in online absentee voting, which simply required them to send a scan of their ID. Ukraine's security service registered a voter with a fake ID and a ridiculous name, Burenka Telenkovna Maslenkova, indicating that the person in question was a cow.

After the OSCE, a conflict resolution body monitoring the conflict, refused to take part in the elections, rebels formed a different group of fringe European politicians with an almost identical name clearly meant to sound the same on Russian TV.

Most of the observers are longtime Russia supporters on the European far right. Ewald Stadler (second from left), an Austrian member of the European Parliament, is best known for saying that the Allied forces in World War II were "no worse" than the Nazis. Another observer, Hungarian lawmaker Márton Gyöngyösi, once called for his government to draw up "lists of Jews" who posed a supposed threat to national security.
Max Seddon / BuzzFeed

Most of the observers are longtime Russia supporters on the European far right. Ewald Stadler (second from left), an Austrian member of the European Parliament, is best known for saying that the Allied forces in World War II were "no worse" than the Nazis. Another observer, Hungarian lawmaker Márton Gyöngyösi, once called for his government to draw up "lists of Jews" who posed a supposed threat to national security.

The observers, who crossed the Ukrainian border illegally via Russia, made little effort to actually observe the vote. Stadler even claimed that he had seen no armed men at polling stations, even though one was standing right behind him.

View this video on YouTube

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The vote appeared modeled after Soviet ones that aimed to reinforce the status quo and raise patriotic spirit, rather than create a genuine democratic process.

Every single person to whom BuzzFeed News spoke said that they were voting for Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the Donetsk People's Republic. Zakharchenko, whose face is plastered on billboards across the territory, was running against two completely unknown candidates — one of whom publicly admitted that he actually supported Zakharchenko. Rebel exit polls showed Zakharchenko winning with 81.37 percent of the vote.
Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

Every single person to whom BuzzFeed News spoke said that they were voting for Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the Donetsk People's Republic. Zakharchenko, whose face is plastered on billboards across the territory, was running against two completely unknown candidates — one of whom publicly admitted that he actually supported Zakharchenko. Rebel exit polls showed Zakharchenko winning with 81.37 percent of the vote.

Many in Ukraine fear the elections are a prelude to further hostilities.

Zakharchenko, whose party's posters say "Vote for Peace," has repeatedly vowed in recent days to launch an offensive aimed at reclaiming the crucial Ukrainian-controlled port city of Mariupol.
Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

Zakharchenko, whose party's posters say "Vote for Peace," has repeatedly vowed in recent days to launch an offensive aimed at reclaiming the crucial Ukrainian-controlled port city of Mariupol.

Russia's military involvement has also become much more conspicuous for the first time since the ceasefire. Ukraine accused Russia on Sunday of sending an "intensive deployment of military equipment and personnel" over the border.

View this video on YouTube

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Over the weekend, BuzzFeed News spotted over 100 unmarked Russian-made military trucks in and around Donetsk. The trucks, which had no license plates, strongly resembled those Russia used to annex Crimea, and were visibly carrying cargo including ammunition, anti-aircraft weapons, and Grad rocket systems.

Russia has denied throughout that it is a party to the conflict, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary — including men BuzzFeed News met in Luhansk who admitted that they were active duty Russian soldiers.

  • Picture of Max Seddon

    Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71

    Contact Max Seddon at max.seddon@buzzfeed.com.

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