DONETSK, Ukraine -- Separatists in two provinces of eastern Ukraine conducted chaotic and sometimes violent plebiscites on Sunday that offered voters just one question about self-rule, while raising many more about where events in the region were headed.
Large crowds turned out in some cities to cast votes meant to legitimize the separatists’ declarations of independent “people’s republics” in the two provinces.
But the voting left unclear whether the two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, will now follow the Crimean Peninsula in seeking to be annexed by Russia.
Nearly everyone who cast a ballot appeared to be voting in favor of greater autonomy from the Ukrainian central government in Kiev.
Opponents appeared to be staying away from the polls, as many had said they would.
The ballot papers that could be seen in transparent ballot boxes in two cities, Donetsk and Slovyansk, were almost all marked yes.
But the voting took place in such a raw state of lawlessness that no one other than the organizers and perhaps their Russian patrons seemed likely to accept the results as a democratic expression of the voters’ will.
The United States, many European nations and the government in Kiev all condemned the referendums, saying they were illegal and likely to worsen the violence in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian groups and the central government.
Even President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has generally supported the separatists, publicly distanced himself from the referendums last week, saying they should be delayed.
The separatists still went ahead.
In one town, Ukrainian security forces shot a man to death outside a polling station as an angry crowd, ignoring warning shots, rushed toward a building that the soldiers controlled.
In some other cities, voters took ballots that were run off on photocopiers and stuffed them into cardboard boxes that the organizers spirited off quickly, lest they be seized by pro-government forces.
By contrast, the atmosphere at polling places in Donetsk city, the capital of the province, was carnival-like, with balloons decorating the entrances and loudspeakers playing Soviet-era songs.
Families with children in tow stood in long lines waiting to vote.
Many people who cast ballots said they hoped the election would solidify the self-styled independent republics in Donetsk and Luhansk enough to tamp down the violence in the region.
Roman Agrisov, a 40-year-old steelworker, said he wanted his vote to signal to the central government to pull its troops out of eastern Ukraine.
“I am voting because I don’t want war,” he said.
But the voting could just as easily escalate the low-level fighting into a civil war between Russian-backed breakaway regions and Kiev.
The interim central government and many leaders in the West have said that the separatists in eastern Ukraine were proxies for the Russian intelligence services, and were trying to destabilize the country after mass protests drove Ukraine’s former pro-Russian leader from power.
Yulia V. Tymoshenko, a Ukrainian presidential candidate, said that Russian meddling in the east was splintering Ukraine into a “Yugoslavia scenario.”
Separatist groups in eastern Ukraine appeared unfazed by the international condemnation of the voting, which many outsiders said could not possibly be free and fair, given the turmoil enveloping the region.
The provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk are predominantly Russian-speaking rather than Ukrainian-speaking, and in past elections they have tended to back pro-Russian politicians.
But that does not mean that most people there want to secede from Ukraine.
A poll by the Pew Research Center released this month indicated that 70 percent of respondents in eastern Ukraine favored keeping the country united, while only 18 percent favored secession; the remainder were undecided.
The referendums demonstrated that there was substantial popular support for the pro-Russian separatists in some areas.
But it offered no reliable gauge of the breadth of that support.
It was not clear whether long voting lines had formed because few polling places were open, or because turnout was running high.
At a half-dozen polling places visited by reporters, except for those in Slavyansk, there were no voting rolls to consult; anyone who could show a local address in official identity papers was allowed to cast a ballot.
Tatyana Us, a volunteer election official, referred to the practice as “open list” voting.
Beyond the provincial capital, the semblance of a normal election frayed, marking a contrast with the secessionist referendum held in Crimea in March.
That voting was conducted plausibly and calmly across the province, though its results, too, were not recognized in Kiev or in the West.
In the town of Krasnoarmiysk, voters filed past a table on Sunday to pick up a ballot and a sausage sandwich.
Crude secessionist propaganda posters hung near the polling station, touching dark themes of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
One depicted the current president, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, as a goat-like figure and asked, “Do you want Satan as your president?”
Another said Ukrainians should reject the “European Jewish choice.”
Galina Kuznetsov, an election volunteer, said she was pleased with the way things were going, because “you don’t see one person here with a bottle of beer — everybody is sober.”
But in the afternoon, a Ukrainian national guard unit known as the Dnepr Brigade appeared and broke up the voting.
Organizers grabbed the boxes of cast ballots and ran, presumably intending to count them later, and the soldiers took up positions in the City Hall building where a secessionist polling station had been operating on the steps.
With the cardboard and cloth remains of a polling stand littering the ground, the armed men demonstratively cocked their rifles, sometimes leveling them.
When a man from the crowd approached the building to block another group of soldiers from entering, he was shot and killed.
Shots were fired in another confrontation in the Luhansk region, the Interfax news agency reported.
Ukrainian soldiers there fired into a crowd that was blocking national guard armored vehicles near the village of Baranikovka, the agency said; two people were wounded.
In Dobropole, a pro-Ukrainian group staged a counter-referendum, calling for the town to secede from Donetsk Province and join a neighboring province to the west that would remain part of Ukraine.
It set up a polling station across a dusty and potholed street from the secessionists, with knots of men guarding each side.
The town seemed primed for violence.
Despite their slapdash nature, the referendums in the east risked escalating the smoldering conflict in Ukraine by entrenching the political wings of pro-Russian militant groups, giving them a chance to claim at least the semblance of a popular mandate, while facing the authorities in Kiev with the awkward problem of appearing to defy voters.
Sergiy Pashinskiy, the acting chief of staff for Ukraine’s presidential administration, denounced the voting on Sunday.
“The so-called referendum in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions is an attempt by the terrorists to cover up their crimes,” Mr. Pashinskiy said.
“In fact, there is no referendum taking place.”
He said there was voting going on only in about one-third of the region, and that the organizers of the separatist balloting would be prosecuted.
After weeks of unrest in the east, pro-Russian groups occupy administrative buildings in about a dozen towns, control some highways and have full control over one midsize city, Slavyansk.
The voting there was orderly on Sunday, with crowds at some polling places in the morning.
But the turnout seemed to thin by early afternoon, and with only a few hours of balloting left, the lists of those who had voted suggested that the turnout in the city was relatively light, perhaps 30 percent of residents or less.
Government security forces occupy positions around the city, and there was an outbreak of fighting on the outskirts overnight before the voting, beginning with a series of explosions, followed by gunfire over the course of about an hour.
It was not clear what had been attacked.
Late Sunday, separatist leaders in Donetsk reported that the ballot on “self-rule” had gone in their favor, with almost 90 percent of the vote, and that 75 percent of the region’s eligible voters had gone to the polls.
For the province as a whole, another organizer was quoted as saying, “on average, from every 1,000 ballots, only one is against.”
A State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said the United States would not recognize the results of the referendums, whatever they were.
She said they were “illegal under Ukrainian law, and are an attempt to create further division and disorder.”
Source: The New York Times