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Ukraine Separatists Claim Victory In Defiant Election


In eastern Ukraine, Russian-backed separatists now say they have their own prime minister. The question is what exactly that means. In the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, people voted over the weekend. Ukraine, the United States and European Union all said this election was meaningless. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Donetsk.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Separatist election officials say the results show Alexander Zakharchenko winning the post of prime minister with more than three quarters of the vote. He's the leader of a powerful local militia, as he reminded reporters after the polls closed.


ALEXANDER ZAKHARCHENKO: (Through translator) Our activism has shown that our people don't only know how to wage war, but also know how to fight for a bright and happy future. We are ready to talk with anyone who will listen to us to stop the bloodshed on this territory.

FLINTOFF: Zakharchenko, a 38-year-old former electrician, took over the prime minister's job in August after his predecessor returned home to Russia. Up until now, the separatist leaders have appointed themselves, and they're hoping that this vote will legitimize their rule. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko denounced the vote as a farce. U.S. officials say it will undermine the cease-fire agreement that Zakharchenko himself signed in September, after negotiations with Ukrainian and Russian officials. This is State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.


JEN PSAKI: The United States will not recognize the results. These elections violate the letter and spirit of the September 5 Minsk cease-fire agreement.

FLINTOFF: The election was not held according to Ukrainian law or to international standards. But the separatists gathered a group of foreign observers. Many came from parties with a strong anti-Western stance, and they pronounced the vote free and fair.


EWALD STADLER: People here in Donetsk and Lugansk have the fundamental right of self-determination, and they have the fundamental right to decide by themselves about their own future.

FLINTOFF: That's Ewald Stadler, a far-right politician from Austria who says he's a founder of an observation group called the Agency for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The group's name is confusingly similar to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has monitored many European elections, but refused to observe the separatist vote. Despite the controversy, many polling places in the separatist-controlled territories had strong voter turnouts.

This is the polling station at School Number 61 in Donetsk where several hundred people waited in line. The polling place director, Oksana Doronenko, acknowledged that election officials were working without voting rolls.

OKSANA DORONENKO: (Through translator) We are getting people from Donetsk and other cities. We have a special registration table for them. Everything is very transparent, and there are no tricks here.

FLINTOFF: But no voter rolls means that officials had no way to detect multiple voting. Voters at the school gave many reasons for coming to cast their ballots, but many, like Vasily Kontsesvitny, a webmaster, expressed resentment against years of corruption in Kiev.

VASILY KONTSESVITNY: (Through translator) Because we are free people - Russians - because we've been oppressed. They didn't give us any rights, any liberty, and now we're sick of it.

FLINTOFF: Several voters said they were there in hopes that the election will bring stability and peace. They have good reason to be concerned. School Number 61 is not far from the Donetsk airport, and people in the neighborhood live with frequent sounds of shelling. This is what it sounded like, just the day before the vote.


FLINTOFF: The area was mostly quiet on voting day, but many people said they expect renewed fighting and possibly even full-out war with Ukraine now that the results are in. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Donetsk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corey Flintoff
[Copyright 2024 NPR]