Russian-backed militias in eastern Ukraine are holding elections today in their self-proclaimed people’s republics in defiance of the United Nations and governments from Kiev to Washington.
Voters in rebel-held territory in Donetsk and Luhansk will each select a head of government as well as a People’s Council, according to their websites. Voting booths will open at 8 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. Both regions switched to Moscow time, one hour later than the rest of Ukraine, on Oct. 26.
About 5.2 million people live in the conflict zones, according to the United Nations. About 4.3 million and 2.2 million people, mainly Russian speakers, lived in Donetsk and Luhansk, respectively, before the uprising began. Seven months of fighting has displaced almost 1 million people and claimed more than 4,000 lives, the UN says.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “deplores” the elections as a “breach of the constitution and national law,” according to the UN’s website. “These ‘elections’ will seriously undermine the Minsk protocol and memorandum, which need to be urgently implemented in full.”
Fighting has continued almost daily since the belligerents agreed to a cease-fire in the capital of Belarus on Sept 5. Seven government soldiers were killed and 16 were wounded by rebel fire yesterday, according to the Defense Ministry. That pushed the death toll for Ukrainian soldiers to almost 1,000, military spokesman Volodomyr Polevyi said in a video briefing.
Russia is alone in saying it will accept the results of the elections in rebel-held territory in Donetsk and Luhansk, which boycotted national parliamentary elections on Oct. 26.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is calling on his party to support keeping Arseniy Yatsenyuk, 40, as the country’s youngest prime minister, saying Oct. 31 the country needs to be united “as never before.” Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front edged the Poroshenko Bloc by 22.2 percent to 21.8 percent of the party-list vote that makes up half of parliament.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told Russia’s RBK television that today’s polls in Donetsk and Luhansk will create problems “that can never be solved,” according to a video of the interview posted on YouTube. “The situation will deteriorate no matter what anyone says.”
Current separatist leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitskiy are seeking to legitimize the roles they assumed at the start of the rebellion, which was triggered by the ouster of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in February and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.
Zakharchenko, 38, is one of three candidates running for the top job in the Donetsk People’s Republic. He was educated as an electrician and worked as a miner before graduating from the Donetsk police academy and then starting his own business, according a biography posted on the local election commission’s website. He led the group of protesters who seized the local government building on April 16 and later “took part in many important battles,” according to the biography.
Plotnitskiy, 50, studied artillery engineering at a military school in Penza, Russia, and joined the Soviet army in 1987, where he served until 1991, when the Soviet Union disbanded, according to a biography compiled by state-run Russian news service RIA Novosti.
In 1996, Plotnitskiy started his own company to trade petroleum products, according to RIA. In 2004, he joined the government agency tasked with protecting consumer rights, where he oversaw, among other things, the quality and sales of oil products in the region. Plotnitskiy became the commander of the local separatist unit “Zarya” in April and the next month he became “prime minister” of the people’s republic.
The minimum voting age in both rebel-held areas is 16. More than 1 million ballots have been printed in Luhansk, but that may not be enough because turnout is expected to be high, according to the website of the rebel government.
In Donetsk, where scanned ballots can be submitted by e-mail, more than 34,000 people have requested to vote by Internet, according to elections officials there.
The UN’s Humanitarian Affairs office warned that the rebel elections may lead to further violence.
“This move is expected to slow down peace negotiations and negatively impact the humanitarian situation for conflict-affected people,” it said in an Oct. 31 report.
Fighting flared after the conclusion of a natural gas deal with Russia last week, highlighting the challenges in reaching peace. The insurgents violated the wobbly cease-fire 37 times in the previous 24 hours, the Defense Ministry in Kiev said on its Facebook page early yesterday.
The Red Cross, meanwhile, warned about winter’s onset. The gas pact brokered by the European Union on Oct. 30 is designed to keep homes warm through the winter.
“Despite the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, acts of indiscriminate shelling and security incidents continue to put civilians at risk,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement. “The approaching winter makes the situation of both residents and displaced people even more difficult.”
Russia continues to supply the militants and conduct surveillance from its side of the border, according to Polevyi, the military spokesman.
A convoy of Russian trucks with 147 workers delivered humanitarian aid and left the country, Polevyi said yesterday. Russia’s Emergency Ministry said it’s organizing another convoy that will deliver meat, sugar, construction materials, fuel and medicine to the area, RIA said.