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Ukraine rebel regions defy West with polls

November 11, 2018

Residents of parts of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists have voted in polls condemned by Germany. A rebel official accused Ukraine of using "telephone terrorism" to try to tamper with the vote.

'Together with Russia' written on a campaign sign in Luhansk
Image: Reuters/A. Ermechenko

Polling stations have closed in rebel-held regions in east Ukraine on Sunday, with the Kremlin-backed rebels boasting high turnout numbers in the disputed election for local leaders.

The polls had prompted protests from Kyiv and its allies, with the West urging Moscow to halt the vote.

Voters were choosing heads of government and members of the legislature in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, set up by separatists amid a war in which more than 10,000 people have died since 2014.

The acting leader of the Donetsk republic, Denis Pushilin, 37, known as a former operator of the Russian MMM Ponzi scam, in which an estimated 5 to 10 million people lost their savings, is a favorite to win the Donetsk poll. Leonid Pasechnik, 48, the former regional chief of the Ukrainian security service and acting leader of the neighboring Luhansk republic, is expected to easily win there. Both have pledged closer ties with Moscow.

'Telephone terrorism'

After the polls closed on Sunday evening, rebel officials in Donetsk said the turnout topped 80 percent in their entity, with the separatists in Luhansk saying the turnout reached 77 percent.

Senior security official in Luhansk, Mihail Paraskev, accused Ukraine of trying to tamper with the vote by "telephone terrorism."

"Ukraine's special services have attempted to wreck the electoral process through telephone terrorism, by providing false tips about bombs in several polling stations and also by issuing threats addressed to members of the electoral commission and ordinary voters, which is the continuation of terror tactics towards Donbass residents," he said.

Luhansk official said that "all these calls came from Ukrainian territory" referring to the areas outside rebel control.

Ukraine: Landmine clearing

Disputed legitimacy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday in a joint statement that holding "so-called" elections undermines Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. Earlier, the two leaders discussed the elections with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko amid ceremonies in Paris commemorating the end of First World War.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc saw the polls in the Donbass region as "illegal and illegitimate," while the US special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, described them as a "mockery" that contravened Western-brokered peace agreements.

Although a 2015 accord aimed at ending the war calls for local elections, Kyiv and the West dispute the legitimacy of Sunday's poll as it is being carried out away from Ukraine's control. Many analysts say the polls are meant to strengthen Russia's grip on the region.

Moscow, however, says the elections are necessary to restore order in the region after the leader of the Donetsk republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, was killed in a bomb attack in Donetsk in August.

Although heavy fighting has ceased in eastern Ukraine, soldiers and civilians still die regularly in sporadically flaring violence.

First results from Sunday's election are expected on Monday.

Ukraine: Casualties of a low-level war

tj,dj/rc (AFP, AP)

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