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Polling stations open for secession referendum in eastern Ukraine

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May 11, 2014, 10:01 a.m. | Ukraine — by Christopher J. Miller

Voters turn out in large numbers at a Donetsk polling station for a referendum on whether the oblast, where 10 percent of Ukraine's population lives, should secede from the rest of the nation.
© Kostyantyn Chernichkin

Christopher J. Miller

Christopher J. Miller is an American editor at the Kyiv Post. He is also a regular contributor to Mashable, and has written for GlobalPost, The Times, The Telegraph, The Independent and others. A former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer (Artemivsk, Donetsk Oblast, 2010-2012), he can be reached at millerjchristopher@gmail.com.

DONETSK, Ukraine – Polling stations have opened in cities across the eastern Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk as residents go to polls to vote for seceding from Ukraine and creating a quasi-independent state in an act declared illegal by the central government in Kyiv and the West but supported by Russia.

The snap vote, hastily organized by Moscow-backed separatists, asks just one question: “Do you support the act of state sovereignty of the Donetsk People's Republic?” “Yes” or “No” are the only options the ballot offers.

One man explained his no vote in Donetsk this way. "Look at Crimea. It's chaos," he said. "This is the future of Donbas if this referendum passes."

There will be no international observers present at any of the more than 1,400 polling stations in Luhansk Oblast or 1,500 in Donetsk Oblast, according to the separatists’ head election official Roman Liahin, a 33-year-old former Party of Regions advisor. But he encouraged “anyone who wants to observe the referendum can do so.”

Referendum organizers are also using voter lists that are more than two years old. No minimum turnout is required for the result, which Liahin said he expects to come by midday on May 12, in order for it to stand.

In an interview with Reuters, Liahin admitted that the vote wasn’t legal.

“Okay, it's not really in line with the law, but I think that's the only way out,” he told the news agency.

Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s interim president has called the referendum “illegal” and said it would be “a step into the abyss.”

The May 11 vote, he said in a statement posted to his website on May 10, will “mean the complete destruction of the economy, social programs and life in general for the majority of the population in these regions.”

The voting booths opened at 8 a.m. on May 11 and will close at 10 p.m. However, the Kyiv Post saw several people voting at one polling station inside a Donetsk school on the evening of May 10 as separatist volunteers continued to print shoddy ballots from Xerox machines.

One man the Kyiv Post spoke with joked that he would cast a ballot “for Donbass and Donetsk Republic” every day the polls were open.

Created merely from normal legal paper, the ballots, which have no watermark or way to verify their legitimacy, can be easily copied and manipulated. The lack of official observers, too, has many worried that the results will be falsified.

Earlier this week the Security Service of Ukraine released a recording it said is a taped phone conversation between a Russian nationalist leader and Moscow-backed separatist leader in Donetsk in which the Russian tells him to simply manipulate the vote, if necessary. “Just do what you like and write that it was 99 percent,” the voice purportedly of the Russian nationalist leader can be heard saying.

A member of the regional election commission glues a sticker depicting the flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic atop of Ukraine's state emblem, as he prepares ballot boxes, in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on May 10, 2014, on the eve of a referendum on independence. Preparations were in full swing on Saturday for the disputed referendums in the two eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, home to 7.3 million of Ukraine's total population of 46 million. Voters in Sunday's referendums will be asked if they support the creation of two independent republics that many see as a prelude to joining Russia, as happened in Crimea. Ukrainian authorities have, however, poured scorn on the planned referendum, saying it is totally illegitimate. AFP PHOTO / GENYA SAVILOV

The slapdash referendum was coordinated solely by volunteers with no prior experience and cost a mere $1,600, according to vote organizers. Nearly $700 of that money went to toner for printers used to create more than three million ballots, they said.

Kyiv Post editor Christopher J. Miller can be reached at miller@kyivpost.com, and on Twitter at @ChristopherJM.

Editor’s Note: This article has been produced with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.

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