Separatists in Ukraine push ahead with referendum, but what does it mean?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: More violence today in eastern Ukraine. Government troops battled pro-Russia separatists in the city of Mariupol. Despite the unrest, the separatists are pushing ahead with a referendum on Sunday, even after Russian president Vladimir Putin asked them to postpone it. Putin himself attended big military parades in Moscow and in Crimea, marking Victory Day - the defeat of Nazi Germany. He spoke of the historic justice of Crimea's return to the Motherland. Mark MacKinnon of Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper is in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. I asked him what the mood was there.

Mark MacKinnon: Well, there was a lot of nervousness about what might happen here in Kharkiv today. They cancelled the annual Victory Day military parade in the city because the governor, who I interviewed today, told me that there had been a threat of a bomb attack at the parade, so they cancelled that. There was quite a large police operation in the city. They arrested 28 people, they said 5 of them were carrying Russian passports, who they believed were planning some type of provocation in the city. Now, of course there's no way of corroborating what they're telling me but the day passed rather peacefully. There were a few thousands pro-Russian protesters on the main square under the statue of Lenin but they have now dispersed.

Werman: There's also news out of the port city of Mariupol, what have you heard from there?

MacKinnon: The Interior ministry, who runs the police, has reported that just over 20 people, he calls them terrorists, certainly pro-Russian activists, were killed in the city today and at least 1 member of the police force. There seems to be have been quite a large conflagration that began when the pro-Russian crowd tried to take over the local police station and that sparked a fight which resulted, it seems, in the Ukrainian military being deployed heavily into the city. There's videos of armored personnel carriers and tanks moving around the city, which is perhaps the largest - and if that number of dead is correct - the bloodiest clash we've seen to date in eastern Ukraine.

Werman: This weekend there are also more referenda that several provinces will be voting on. What's the status with all of those? Are they in fact going to be held?

MacKinnon: In Kharkiv, there was an announcement that they are postponing a referendum in Kharkiv but I don't believe there was ever a serious effort to hold one here now. The separatists are going ahead on Sunday and holding referenda in Donetsk and Lugansk. It's very difficult to see how they will hold those in any sort of fair and transparent manner. The violence in Mariupol, which is in Donetsk province, illustrates that compared to Crimea, where at least you have the Crimean government running this on a model of previous elections, had a lot of problems including the presence of pro-Russian gunmen or Russian soldiers down the street, but you could go to a polling station, watch people find their names on the list and then cast a ballot. I can't see that happening in Donetsk and Lugansk on Sunday but at the same time I don't think that the separatists are terribly concerned with procedure. I think they're just going to press ahead and declare results.

Werman: What are they actually voting on?

MacKinnon: The ballots that I've seen that have been distributed widely online have a very simple question and it is "Do you support the declaration of independence by the Donetsk People's Republic?" The referendum in Crimea had a second question which was "Should Crimea seek union with Russia?" That's not on the ballot.

Werman: Vladimir Putin has withdrawn his backing for the referendum. How has that been perceived by both sides in Ukraine?

MacKinnon: I don't think he's withdrawn his backing for the referendum, I think what he's done is he asked them to postpone it and I think that was largely a gesture to show this separation, that this isn't the Russian government doing this, this is pro-Russian activists. A tactical step away from these people.

Werman: Come Monday morning, do you expect pro-Russian separatists to be even more determined to break from Kiev, referendum or not?

MacKinnon: Come Monday, I think we will see Donetsk in particular, likely Lugansk as well, declaring that they are now de facto independent from Kiev and perhaps demanding the withdrawal as Russia already has of Ukrainian troops from their territory. That obviously sets the grounds for an escalation of the conflict. I met today with the mayor of Kharkiv and he was saying that his concern is - and Kharkiv is a province that abuts both Donetsk and Lugansk - is that after this has happened, the agitators who have moved from Crimea to Donetsk and Lugansk, will now expand their area of operation to provinces like right here in Kharkiv or perhaps Odessa in the south.

Werman: The Globe and Mail's Mark MacKinnon speaking with us from the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. Mark, thank you.

MacKinnon: Thank you very much.