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Ukraine rebels hold election in face of international criticism

On Sunday, rebel territories in eastern Ukraine choose a parliament and leader. The vote, with unknown candidates and a lack of opposition figures, has been condemned by the international community.

A packed auditorium and deafening applause welcomed the famous Russian singer Iosif Kobzon at the Donetsk opera house, where he appeared with an ensemble of singers and dancers from the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs to publicize Sunday's parliamentary election in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.

At the end of the concert, the Russian superstar - brought in from Moscow especially for Monday's event - introduced the republic's "prime minister," rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko.

Two years ago, Kobzon made a similar appearance in Donetsk. Back then he sang a song whose title translates to "My Mother Ukraine, My Father Donbass" along with the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, now in exile in Russia.

Alexander Zakharchenko

Zakharchenko is running for the post of rebel prime minister

This city in eastern Ukraine used to be Yanukovych's political stronghold. But now Donetsk, along with Luhansk, has declared itself separate from the rest of Ukraine under pressure from pro-Russian separatists and mercenaries.

The song about Mother Ukraine wasn't in Kobzon's lineup this time around. And these days, it's less music and more the sound of gunfire that serenades Donetsk.

Sunday's election will be held to make a statement, as separatists in Donetsk and in the neighboring region of Luhansk use it to consolidate their secession from Ukraine.

"The style of this election reminds me of Ukraine's old Party of Regions, which used to be in power," said Serjei, a resident of Donetsk. "But this time the opposition is the Ukrainian state itself."

Who is backing Zakharchenko?

Three candidates have registered in the race for the position of government leader of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic. The most well-known is Zakharchenko, who only recently appeared on the political stage. Not long ago he was a complete unknown; now, he seems to be appearing on every local news program, and his name is prominently displayed on most of the election posters plastered around the city.

According to Ukrainian media, Zakharchenko's backer is the Donetsk oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, once considered to be the godfather of Donetsk. He ended up losing his influence when Yanukovych fled to Russia earlier this year.

Ukrainian magazine Insider has described Zakharchenko's former close ties to Akhmetov's consortium System Capital Management (SCM) and delegates of the Party of Regions. The consortium, however, has denied ever having employed Zakharchenko.

Yuri Sivokonenko and Alexander Kofman are the other two candidates up against Zakharchenko. Not much is known about them, other than the fact that they are members of parliament in the Donetsk Republic.

'No opposition candidates'

The future parliament of the Donetsk People's Republic will be made up of 100 members. Only two parties are competing in the election: the Donetsk Republic and Free Donbass. Both groups are committed to secession from Kyiv.

The Donetsk Republic is led by Andrei Purgin, one of the leaders of the separatists. The group was founded in 2005 and subsequently banned by Kyiv as a separatist organization.

At the top of its list are Zakharchenko, Purgin and Denis Pushilin, who appears now and then in Donetsk, only to return once again to Moscow. The Free Donbass movement was founded in early October by members of the self-proclaimed republic's parliament.

The names of members of the two movements don't mean much to most people in the region. "When these people took control with their weapons, they didn't ask us what we thought," said Marina, a Donetsk resident who will not vote in Sunday's poll.

"They just showed up and grabbed power. And now these unknowns want to hold elections, to show that we supposedly trust them. But there aren't even any opposition candidates."

Vote manipulation

The number of people actually planning to take part in the vote is unknown; no reliable surveys are available. A total of 3,198,000 ballots have been printed, the same number of people who supposedly participated in the controversial independence referendum on May 11, a vote that was also not recognized by the West.

Free Donbass campaign poster

Free Donbass has promoted "peace, work and independence" in its campaign

Vote manipulation could be possible with Sunday's vote as well. Voters are able to cast their ballots online, providing further options for falsification. To date, only Russia has said it will recognize the outcome of the election.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, along with world leaders and other members of the international community, have described Sunday's vote as a pseudo election.

They have called on separatists to respect the agreements outlined by Ukraine and Russia in Minsk last month, which stipulated that local elections are to be conducted under Ukrainian law.

The parliament in Kyiv has set local elections for December 7, a vote that is meant to agree on a special status for certain districts in the Donbass region.