Conflict & Justice

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


A man jumps over a burning barricade outside the city hall in Mariupol, Friday.


REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Government troops battled pro-Russia separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Friday. Despite the unrest, the separatists are pushing ahead with a referendum on Sunday, even after Russian President Vladimir Putin asked them to postpone it.

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

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."

The situation was also tense in Kharkiv. "There was a lot of nervousness," says Mark MacKinnon of Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper, who is in Kharkiv. “They cancelled the annual Victory Day military parade in the city,” because of a bomb threat.

There was also a large police operation, according to the authorities, with 28 people arrested including five allegedly with Russian passports, for planning some sort of provocation. MacKinnon says he was not able to corroborate that account.

In Mariupol, the government says its forces “destroyed 20 terrorists.” MacKinnon says his understanding that a conflict began when pro-Russian separatists tried to take over a police station. “If that number is correct,” says MacKinnon, “that’s the bloodiest clash to date in eastern Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian military is now deployed heavily in the city, with armored personnel carriers and tanks in the streets.

The bloodshed has not deterred separatists from continuing with plans for a referendum on Sunday in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk (Lugansk in Russian).

MacKinnon comments that “it’s very difficult to see how they will hold those in any fair and transparent manner. The violence in Mariupol, which is in Donetsk province illustrates that.” He also points out that the rebels do not even have access to any lists of registered voters.

But then, he says “I don’t think the separatists are terribly concerned with procedure. I think they’re just going to press ahead and declare a result.”

The question on the ballot 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 this ballot. 

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin earlier this week, called for the vote to be postponed. MacKinnon thinks this is largely a gesture to show that this is not the Russian government doing this, this is all coming from the pro-Russian activists.

Plans for a vote in Kharkiv province were scrapped – an announcement which surprised many there, according to MacKinnon, since no-one knew there was supposed to be one.

“Come Monday,” says MacKinnon, “I think we will see Donetsk, and likely Luhansk as well, declaring that they are now de facto independent from Kiev, and perhaps demanding the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops.”

“That,” adds Mackinnon, “obviously sets the ground for an escalation of the conflict.”

He says the provincial governor of Kharkiv told him Friday that he fears his province, which abuts both Donetsk and Luhansk, will be the next target for the separatist ‘agitators.’