Despite critical comments from Kyiv and beyond, eastern Ukrainian rebel leaders explain why Sunday's polls represent a boost to their campaign for independence from the rest of Ukraine. Kitty Logan reports from Donetsk.
Rebel election results in eastern Ukraine were rubber stamped on Monday morning and, as expected, the acting head of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, won by a large margin. The rebel leadership seems not to mind that most countries, aside from Russia, refuse to recognize the vote.
Roman Lyagin, head of the rebel election commission, shrugged off negative international reaction to the poll, claiming the vote to be a democratic process. He was adamant that the election process had been fair and was particularly defiant about the response from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has described the elections as "a farce."
"We're disappointed with the Ukrainian government," Lyagin told DW. "We're disappointed with them because they represent the international community. But they're just cavemen. Their place is in the rubbish bin, not in politics. So, believe me, we're not interested in the reaction of the international community."
Russia's strong arm
Sunday's elections have boosted rebel strength and confidence. And they have taken the separatists one step closer along the long path to forming their own mini-state, with the rebel "government" gradually becoming more disciplined and structured. Appeals from the Ukrainian government to respect sovereign territory have fallen on deaf ears.
"Kyiv has to come to terms with the idea that Donbass is not part of Ukraine," said Lyagin. "Whether they will recognize the result of our vote or not is Kyiv's problem."
Zakharencho was more conciliatory, saying he was ready for dialogue with "anyone who will talk to us." But no one is talking. Both sides blame each other for the lack of diplomatic progress and repeated breaches in the Minsk ceasefire agreement. The chances of any dialogue happening soon appear to be slim. The rebels know they have the upper hand - with Russia's strong arm covering their backs.
Few hurdles to voting
But the rebel leadership also feels sure it has the local population onside. When doors opened at 8am on Sunday at a polling station in a local school, a steady stream of voters poured in. The majority were older people, keen to recreate the nostalgia of the former Soviet Union.
There were no official voter registration lists. People simply had to show a passport to sign up. They could also vote online, or by post, resulting in a process that could be neither controlled nor completely monitored. Rebel election officials claim over a million people cast ballots at over 300 polling stations, and they say this process was properly monitored by official observers from a previously unknown organization called the ASCE.
Despite cynicism toward the rebel campaign elsewhere, voters at a polling station in central Donetsk said they had a genuine belief in the process. Through the clear plastic ballot boxes, it was possible to see that most had voted for Zakharchenko, whose name appeared at the top of a list of three presidential candidates.
"My husband and I voted for Zakharchenko because we trust him, and he's a reliable and smart person," said one woman. "And he started reconstruction in Donbass region. That's why we trust him and we voted for him."
A clear signal
The Donetsk polling station was supervised by former schoolteacher Yuri Kholyavkin, who said, "We don't agree with Kyiv politics. The people of Donbass are opposed to them. That's why we want our voices heard and to be taken seriously. These elections mean a lot to us. We will improve our status and the belief in ourselves."
Those opinions were shared by many in the streets. One passer-by summed up the mood by saying, "I think Donetsk needs these elections because we need the power that will represent us on the international stage."
However, half of this city's residents are absent. Many local people who fled the fighting never returned. Arguably, it's those former residents who have left indefinitely who don't support the rebel leadership.
On Tuesday Zakharchenko will be formally sworn in as president of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic in an official ceremony. Gestures like these may not significantly affect the dynamic of the ongoing conflict, but they send a clear message concerning the legitimacy the rebel leaders believe they have won.