Friday, May 09, 2014

Separatists Defy Kiev And Putin On Referendum

SLAVYANSK, Ukraine -- Pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine vowed on Thursday to press ahead with a referendum seeking autonomy, a risky move that seemed to defy their political patron, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whose motives in urging a delay in the vote came under furious attack by officials in Kiev.


A day after Mr. Putin scrambled the political landscape by suggesting the vote be put off, militant leaders in Donetsk, Luhansk and Slovyansk said they would go ahead on Sunday as scheduled.

Far from mollified by Mr. Putin’s new stance, Ukrainian officials expressed deep suspicions, accusing him of trying to replay events preceding Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Although the ability of separatists to stage a legitimate ballot is highly in doubt, the mere possibility that Russia would use the vote as a pretext for another territorial grab had officials in Kiev calling the referendum illegal and insisting that action to suppress the armed separatists would continue in the days ahead.

“The Ukrainian state has never planned any referendum,” the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, Andriy Parubiy, said at a news conference in Kiev.

“We cannot cancel or postpone something that doesn’t exist. This is political fraud.” 

However the process plays out on Sunday, the prospect of resolving the Ukrainian crisis will hinge more on the reactions in Moscow, Kiev and the West than on the results — real or forged.

Ukrainian officials said Mr. Putin’s remarks were intended to continue destabilizing the country with an eye toward disrupting the far more consequential presidential elections scheduled for May 25.

“Any calls for their postponement are not an expression of good will, but simply farce,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

“This scenario has already been played by Russia in Crimea.”

But some analysts said Mr. Putin was hedging against the inability of insurgents to pull off a successful ballot measure.

“They control dozens of buildings, but not the entire territory, and don’t have the administrative capacity to organize a vote,” said Michael McFaul, who until earlier this year served as the United States ambassador in Russia.

“Moreover, polls show that a free and fair election there would not produce support for splitting with Ukraine.”

In Moscow on Thursday, Mr. Putin briefly echoed the remarks he made a day earlier about seeking a diplomatic solution to the Ukrainian crisis through mediation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In another gesture of reconciliation, Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksander Turchynov, and prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, in a statement offered amnesty to any insurgents who did not have “blood on their hands.”

Caught off guard by Mr. Putin’s surprise remarks on Wednesday, separatist leaders in southeastern Ukraine regained their balance Thursday, insisting the referendum would go ahead as planned.

“I think he has reasons to propose rescheduling the referendum,” the self-appointed mayor of Slavyansk, Vyachislav Ponomaryov, told reporters Thursday afternoon.

“But I don’t know these reasons. We’re ready to hold it.”

Mr. Ponomaryov displayed what he said was a sample ballot that contained a single question, printed in both Russian and Ukrainian:

“Do you support the declaration of independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic?”

He predicted that an “overwhelming majority” would vote in favor of independence, a step that he indicated would mean closer relations with Russia and, perhaps, eventual union with the Russian Federation.

“For now, we should just specify for ourselves that we should definitively secede from Kiev,” Mr. Ponomaryov said.

“Then we’ll decide for ourselves which path to take further.”

His optimism notwithstanding, even the simplest mechanics of the vote remained unclear.

Less than 72 hours before voting would begin, the rebel authorities in Slavyansk had yet to disclose even a list of polling places.

On Tuesday, Mr. Ponomaryov did not know if there would be 56 or 156 polling places in the city.

As a result, the decision to proceed with the vote was fraught with risks for the rebels, who have managed to disrupt eastern Ukraine but control only a small amount of territory.

If the voting reaches only a tiny portion of Ukraine’s eastern population, as many here expect, it will highlight their lack of support among the population at large. 

While a chaotic voting process might discredit insurgent leaders, Ukrainian officials were not willing to stand by and hope for a mess, particularly given the level of misinformation that has been broadcast repeatedly on Russian state-controlled news media throughout the crisis.

Just a polling station or two with a line of voters could provide the backdrop needed to make the vote appear legitimate on television to millions of viewers.

Illustrating officials’ concerns about fraud, the Ukrainian security service posted a recording on its website, on Wednesday, that it said proved Russian involvement in coordinating both the unrest in eastern Ukraine and the referendum on independence, including plans to falsify results.

The recording was of a phone call that the security service said took place between a pro-Russian political operative named Aleksandr Barkashov, who was identified as being in Moscow, and Dmytro Boitsov, a leader of rebels in Donetsk.

The authenticity of the recording could not be independently verified.

In the conversation, riddled with expletives, Mr. Boitsov suggests canceling the referendum and Mr. Barkashov insists that it must go forward, but says that it is ridiculous to consider holding a real vote.

“Are you going to walk around and collect papers?” he asks incredulously, his words punctuated by curses. “Are you insane?”

Mr. Barkashov adds: “Let’s say that 89 percent voted for the Donetsk Republic and that’s it.”

Given the risks of manipulation, the acting Ukrainian president, Mr. Turchynov, and the prime minister, Mr. Yatsenyuk, continued to denounce the referendum and Mr. Putin, even as they called for a national round table to discuss the country’s political future.

By their reckoning, it seemed as if the Russian president had stage-managed yet another deft maneuver in his geopolitical feud with the West, presenting himself as a conciliator while also reasserting, as he has for weeks, that the rebels in eastern Ukraine are not under Kremlin control.

Ukrainian officials said they did not believe Mr. Putin would pull back troops along the border, and they suggested that he was simply buying time, allowing his agents on the ground to continue stirring unrest while giving Russia flexibility to intervene further and potentially take steps to cast doubt on the Ukrainian presidential election this month.

The presidential race is viewed in Kiev, and particularly by Ukraine’s Western allies, as critical to installing a government that even Russia must accept as valid, and allowing the country to open a new chapter that will almost certainly involve closer ties with Europe.

While officials said they suspected the rebels’ referendum was intended to mimic the series of events that led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the road has been far rockier for separatists in the east.

In Crimea, Moscow made clear that it supported the idea of a public referendum. Mr. Putin’s remarks covering southeastern Ukraine suggested a far murkier situation, in which the Kremlin seemed reluctant to take responsibility for the region, with its shabby economy and where surveys have indicated a majority of the population does not support joining Russia.

In another development, officials from the Pentagon and NATO questioned Mr. Putin’s assertion on Wednesday that Russia had pulled back its troops from the Ukrainian border.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary general of NATO, wrote on Twitter that while the alliance had taken note of Mr. Putin’s statement, “So far we haven’t seen any — any — indication of troops pulling back.”

Source: The New York Times

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