Ukraine rebel regions re-elect leaders in defiance of West
- US and the European Union insist the vote is illegitimate because it is conducted where Ukraine has no control
- Separatists say the vote is a key step towards establishing full-fledged democracy in the regions
Residents of Russian-backed areas of eastern Ukraine have re-elected separatist leaders, results showed on Monday, cementing Moscow’s hold on the disputed regions.
Kiev and its Western allies denounced the weekend elections as a sham but Russia insisted they were a step forward in the regions’ drive for independence.
Analysts say the votes will allow Moscow to claim the region’s leaders as democratically elected representatives in future talks with Kiev, although few expect Ukraine’s moribund peace process to be revived soon.
Gun-toting, camouflage-clad guards were deployed to ensure order during Sunday’s vote in the Donetsk and Lugansk “People’s Republics”, which have been controlled by separatists since breaking away from Ukraine’s pro-Western government in 2014.
Authorities pulled out all the stops to encourage a high turnout, setting up food stalls near polling stations and offering lottery tickets to those who voted.
Denis Pushilin, the 37-year-old acting Donetsk leader and a former negotiator with Kiev, was elected with 61 per cent of the vote with almost all ballots counted, the local electoral commission said.
He had been in charge of the region following the killing of the rebel Donetsk “president” in a bomb attack in August.
Leonid Pasechnik, 48, the acting Lugansk leader and previously the regional head of the Ukrainian security service, took 68 per cent of the vote.
Kiev’s central election commission dismissed the results as of no consequence, saying it “categorically rejects any legal significance of these illegal and manipulative elections”.
Alexei Makarkin of the Moscow-based Centre for Political Technologies, said the elections were about solidifying the authority of the regions’ separatist governments.
“Without these elections, they would have had less legitimacy than their predecessors,” he said.
Analysts said the Kremlin had greater control over Pushilin than his predecessor, and that the polls were a way to increase its influence in the regions, which represent about three per cent of Ukraine.
Washington and Brussels had asked Russia not to allow the polls to go ahead, arguing they would further hamper efforts to end a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people over four years.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and supported the outbreak of the insurgency in eastern Ukraine in what Kiev sees as punishment for a pivot to the West.