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Monday, May 12, 2014

Insurgents In Eastern Ukraine Declare Independence

Denis Pushilin (center), the self-styled governor of the so-called 'People's Republic of Donetsk' speaks as Roman Lyagin (right), Chairman of the Central Election Commission and Boris Litvinov, coordinator of the Central Election Commission (left) listen during a press conference in Donetsk on May 12, 2014. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

Denis Pushilin (center), the self-styled governor of the so-called ‘People’s Republic of Donetsk’ speaks as Roman Lyagin (right), Chairman of the Central Election Commission and Boris Litvinov, coordinator of the Central Election Commission (left) listen during a press conference in Donetsk on May 12, 2014. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

Pro-Russia insurgents have declared independence for the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine.

They read out the declaration at a rally Monday in the city of Luhansk after insurgents said 96 percent voted Sunday for the region’s independence.

The announcement came only an hour after separatists in the neighboring Donetsk region declared independence and also asked to join Russia.

Both regions held a hastily arranged vote on separatism Sunday that Ukraine’s government and its western allies said violated international law.

NPR’s Corey Flintoff joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson with details.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. And it's been another day of wild weather in parts of the country, and towns like Louisville in Mississippi are still recovering from that tornado two weeks ago. We will check in.

HOBSON: But first, a reaction in Ukraine, where two regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, have voted to become independent of Ukraine, according to the people who organized the vote, and in Donetsk pro-Russian separatists are asking to join Russia. Insurgents in Luhansk stopped short of making a similar statement, but a spokesperson said Luhansk will not vote in Ukraine's May 25th presidential election.

The separatists in both regions claim about 90 percent of people who cast ballots in yesterday's referendum voted for independence. NPR's international correspondent Corey Flintoff is in Donetsk. And when we spoke with him earlier today, he described the scene at polling stations over the weekend.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, you know, the polling places we visited in Donetsk and Luhansk and another small town near Luhansk were actually pretty orderly and efficient. I mean, we saw a steady stream of voters coming in, in every place we went, and my colleague, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, was in a couple of places early in the day that were quite crowded.

But I have to say, though, that the voting procedures wouldn't have met any kind of international standard. You know, there were some election judges there who wore ribbons, those black and orange St. George's ribbons that identified them as separatist supporters. In some places, people had to fill out their ballots pretty much in full view of everyone else.

And most importantly, I would say that there didn't seem to be any safeguards against people voting multiple times in different places. That said, though, I think that the people I saw voting were genuinely voting of their own free will for something that they believed in very passionately.

HOBSON: Well, you just got back with a press conference with the election commissioner. What was said there?

FLINTOFF: It was actually a packed press conference with a lot of Russian and pro-Russian media in it. And they actually applauded when he said the numbers. And that, of course, as you know, is something that's just sort of unheard of among journalists anywhere. People just don't applaud for public officials. And it kind of shows the partisan nature of this thing.

There are definitely, you know, strong voices on each side that make no bones about the fact that they're biased toward one side or another. The spokesman at the press conference said that there would be no further referendum about joining Russia, that in fact that would be something that the new government would take care of.

HOBSON: Corey, I saw some reporting yesterday from a journalist who said he saw with his own eyes somebody vote no on the referendum and then asked that person how they voted, and they said, oh, I voted yes, we should be independent. You've been speaking with people there. What are they saying? Is independence really as popular as it looks from the vote?

FLINTOFF: Well, you know, there seems to be a lot of real opposition out there, but in fact people in the opposition didn't vote for fear of being beaten up. And frankly, you know, the pro-separatists are a pretty intimidating bunch, some of them. People actually told me that they didn't vote because they were afraid of being beaten up if somebody had discovered what they had voted.

Obviously, there were some no votes because it was only 89 percent in the Donetsk region. The problem is that people in opposition to the separatists are kind of a silent group.

HOBSON: Well, how is the Kremlin responding to this?

FLINTOFF: Well, you know, the Kremlin responded this morning with a statement that said that Russia respected the outcome of this referendum. And I think there might be a little diplomatic language in use there. They're saying respected rather than recognized, which would seem to be a step away from actually recognizing the independence of these areas.

HOBSON: And what about the government in Kiev?

FLINTOFF: Well, the government in Kiev has said throughout that this is - in fact the president has said that this is a farce, that it's illegitimate, it's unconstitutional. And in fact it is unconstitutional, according to many provisions of the Ukrainian constitution. But the people here say, you know, this is more a question of the voice of the people, and their real purpose in holding it was to show that they have the support of a majority here.

HOBSON: Well, Corey, we have just passed another milestone here with this vote. What does this do to the tensions? It doesn't seem like it's going to do anything to tamp them down at all.

FLINTOFF: No, it likely won't, although, you know, some of the people that I talked to that oppose the separatists say, you know, that the government in Kiev does need to now start talking to them. The government in Kiev has been carrying out this what it calls an anti-terrorist operation. They're trying to overcome the separatists militarily, and, they're not succeeding largely because of the fear that they're going to cause civilian casualties and that they're providing more propaganda ammunition for the separatists.

So, it looks as though it's a no-win situation to try to resolve this thing militarily and that both sides may actually have to talk to each other at some point.

HOBSON: NPR international correspondent Corey Flintoff, speaking with us from Donetsk, Ukraine. Corey, thanks so much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Jeremy, it's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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