DONETSK/SLAVIANSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – Pro-Moscow rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine called yesterday for their region to become part of Russia, the day after staging a referendum on self-rule, although Moscow stopped short of endorsing their bid for annexation.
Announcing the result of the vote in one of the two provinces where it was held, a leader of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, Denis Pushilin, said it was now an independent state and would appeal to join the Russian Federation.
“The people of Donetsk have always been part of the Russian world. For us, the history of Russia is our history,” he said.
“Based on the will of the people and on the restoration of historic justice, we ask the Russian Federation to consider the absorption of the Donetsk People’s Republic into the Russian Federation,” he told a news conference.
There and in neighbouring Luhansk, some officials said they might now hold a second referendum on joining Russia, like one held in Crimea, a Ukrainian region Moscow seized and annexed in March after protesters ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian president.
Donetsk and Luhansk together are home to 6.5 million people and represent around a third of Ukraine’s industrial output. Their declarations create the biggest new self-proclaimed independent states in Europe since Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union itself broke up more than 20 years ago.
Donetsk separatists said that more than 80 per cent of voters had supported independence. Those in Luhansk said more than 96 per cent did.
The government in Kiev and its Western supporters say the exercise was absurd, with no legal basis, insecure polling stations, old voter lists, ballots that could be easily reproduced and self-proclaimed election officials openly promoting secession. They say many residents support a united Ukraine but would have stayed home, both out of fear of rebel gunmen and to avoid lending the vote credibility.
Unlike in Crimea, Moscow has not recognised the two regions as independent from Kiev and has said nothing to suggest it would endorse their absorption into Russia. President Vladimir Putin even called last week for the referendum to be postponed. But Moscow indicated clearly yesterday that it intends to use the results of the referendums to put more pressure on the government in Kiev to recognise the rebels in the east as a legitimate side in talks.
“We believe that the results of the referendum should be brought to life within the framework of dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Luhansk,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
It accused the Kiev government of a “criminal lack of readiness for dialogue with their own people”.
The Russian stance appears calculated to entrench Moscow’s allies in control of Ukraine’s industrial heartland without taking the sort of overt steps – sending in ground forces or formally recognising the regions’ split from Kiev – that might invite tough sanctions from the West.