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 IN HOPE AND DEFIANCE, VOTERS IN EAST UKRAINE GO TO POLLS IN REBEL ELECTIONS

IN HOPE AND DEFIANCE, VOTERS IN EAST UKRAINE GO TO POLLS IN REBEL ELECTIONS

Separatist-Held Vote Tests Shaky Cease-Fire Between Ukrainian Government and Rebels

PETRIVSKE, Ukraine-The village council building is a blown-out shell. The store next door is a metal skeleton. People's homes are piles of rubble, a reminder of the days when Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels waged war amid this village's cottages and streets.

Despite the ruin, residents of tiny rebel-held Petrivske in eastern Ukraine crammed into a vacated house on Karl Marx Street on Sunday to vote in a separatist election that Kiev has decried as illegal.

For some, the vote was an act of defiance, revenge for weeks of destruction most locals blamed on Ukraine. For others, it was an exercise in hope, a desire to empower any leader in the region promising restoration and peace.

For a few, it was an attempt to register their small voice in a global East-West conflict that has rendered ordinary locals powerless and upset. "Everyone is hoping," Larisa Rudenko, a 47-year-old art teacher, said as she waited to vote in Petrivske, a former Soviet collective farm in the Donetsk region. "That's why we're here-to change something."

But what many locals saw as a vote for peace may well raise the risk of a return to war. The provocative elections to select leaders in Ukraine's separatist-held regions-which rebel authorities presented as a first step on the road to peace and restoration-have jeopardized a shaky cease-fire brokered in Minsk among the conflict's parties in September.

Pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine are holding rogue elections on Sunday, and some fear Russian recognition of the vote could push Ukraine back into a full-blown conflict. WSJ's Niki Blasina explains why. (Photo: AP)

The cease-fire brought a wave of prisoner exchanges, froze territorial positions and scaled down fighting. But it failed to end the violence in full, with skirmishes over contested positions killing hundreds since then, according to United Nations statistics.

Ukraine, the U.S., the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe condemned Sunday's election as a serious violation of the cease-fire agreement. "We also caution Russia against using any such illegitimate vote as a pretext to insert additional troops and military equipment into Ukraine" said Mark Stroh, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council. But Moscow signaled an intention to recognize the vote.

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko said it was a "pseudo-election" in the presence of tanks and guns that violated the country's law and threatened the peace process. He said the vote didn't represent the will of the people.

The election came as some rebel leaders vowed to advance on Ukrainian-held positions they described as critical to the lifeblood of their enclave. As voters headed to the polls, a column of unmarked trucks resembling Russian military vehicles rumbled down the road toward Donetsk, toting an antiaircraft gun and other weaponry.

Residents of Petrivske in front of the blown-out village council building that usually functions as the local polling station. Instead, residents voted in an abandoned house across the street.
Residents of Petrivske in front of the blown-out village council building that usually functions as the local polling station. Instead, residents voted in an abandoned house across the street. DMITRY BELIAKOV FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

"These elections will bring the situation to an economic and political deadlock, and people who live there are going to suffer," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told Russia's RBK television on Saturday. "For them, problems are being created that will never be solved, and the situation will get worse, no matter what [the rebels] say."

Mr. Klimkin warned that those hoping rebel-held parts of Donetsk and Luhansk would become permanent Russia-backed statelets were mistaken. "They are living in a completely different reality," he said.

But Russia's continued support of the separatists could leave Ukraine with little choice. Its calls for Western weapons left unanswered, the government in Kiev may be forced to effectively surrender the land for the long term. Sunday's vote highlighted the extent to which Kiev had lost control over separatist-held parts of the east, where Ukraine's military campaign to rout the rebels has angered many citizens.

The vote's outcome appeared all but predetermined. By evening, rebel election officials announced that Alexander Zakharchenko, a 38-year-old former mine electrician, would stay on as the leader of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic after winning more than 80% of the vote. Igor Plotnitsky, a 50-year-old Soviet military veteran and former consumer protection worker, appeared poised to remain leader of the Luhansk People's Republic.

Two separatist fighters seen guarding the rebel elections in Petrivske.
Two separatist fighters seen guarding the rebel elections in Petrivske. DMITRY BELIAKOV FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

No voter registries were used, and neither candidate faced any serious competition. In Petrivske, Ms. Rudenko said she planned to vote for Mr. Zakharchenko, seeing as his two competitors were practically unknowns. "I don't know, maybe someone else has heard of them," she said.

The art teacher said she had initially harbored skepticism about the rebels and disliked the idea of Petrivske separating from Ukraine. But she said the conflict changed her opinion, as Ukrainian forces began firing from her village's streets and damaging civilian homes. She said other villagers changed their minds, too. "Now everyone is for the DPR," she said.

Raisa Trostyanskaya, a 75-year-old resident of nearby Marynivka, leaves the local polling station on Sunday.
Raisa Trostyanskaya, a 75-year-old resident of nearby Marynivka, leaves the local polling station on Sunday. DMITRY BELIAKOV FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

At times, the campaign bordered on surreal. Billboards around Donetsk calling locals to vote featured an odd collage of a baby, an armed personnel carrier and a fiery explosion. Mr. Zakharchenko at one point campaigned in Donetsk by singing on stage in his fatigues alongside a famous 77-year-old Soviet-era crooner known for his jet black, helmet-like hair. One of the two parties running for the new legislature of the Donetsk People's Republic was named simply the Donetsk Republic.

The depth of tragedy among the voters stood in contrast to the electoral kitsch. Residents who had lived in basements for weeks without electricity and hadn't received pension or salary payments in months turned up at the polls in the hope of somehow reversing their fate.

In Marynivka, down the road from Petrivske, 75-year-old Raisa Trostyanskaya lost her only remaining son in what she described as a Ukrainian artillery strike on the village this summer. She clutched her Ukrainian passport as she exited the polling station. "There's nothing worse than going through the death of your baby boy," she said.

In the Donetsk region, voters selected one of three candidates for prime minister on one ballot and chose one of two political parties running for representation in a "people's council" on a second ballot. The council is due to include 100 members, allotted according to the share of the vote each party wins, but only six people were listed on the ballot.

After the OSCE refused to monitor the vote, rebel authorities began referring to a ragtag group of obscure Western observers as the ASCE, or the Agency for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Such an organization, however, didn't exist. It turned out to be the name of a fictitious anti-OSCE organization proposed by a far-right Austrian politician serving as an observer.



Paul Sonne, The Wall Street Journal

 
 
 
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