A woman takes a picture of President Vladimir Putin who is caricatured as Adolf Hitler in Lviv, Ukraine. The caption on the poster says: “Putler Kaput”. (AFP)
Slaviansk (Ukraine), May 8: Anti-government rebels in eastern Ukraine said today that they would proceed with a referendum this weekend seeking autonomy, even though President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia yesterday had appeared to withdraw his support for the vote.
“The referendum will be held on May 11,” said Miroslav Rudenko, the co-chairman of the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, as the rebels call their political wing, according to Interfax, a Russian state-controlled news service.
The announcement is likely to revive tensions between the interim government in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, and the armed rebels who have seized terrain and buildings in parts of eastern Ukraine, including Donetsk.
Anti-government rebels in Luhansk, where the uprising has a smaller presence in a city strategically located beside the Russian border, echoed the message from Donetsk, saying they too would hold a referendum.
Yesterday, Putin appealed to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to hold off on the referendum in order to provide an opening for a dialogue on new political arrangements for the country, including more autonomy for regions of Ukraine that identify historically and linguistically with Russia.
The swift insistence by local separatist leaders that they would persist in holding the referendum immediately raised questions about Putin’s motives in his remarks yesterday, in which he appeared to sound a conciliatory note.
Putin and other senior Russian officials have repeatedly insisted that Moscow is not controlling the unrest in eastern Ukraine, a point that is strenuously disputed by the Ukrainian government in Kiev.
Officials in Kiev have noted that any such referendum is illegal — a direct violation of the Ukrainian Constitution — and they have questioned the ability of the separatist leaders to carry out anything approaching a normal vote.
In Kiev yesterday, officials reacted guardedly to Putin’s remarks, noting that he had made similar noises about pulling back troops from the border with Ukraine, only for Ukraine and its western allies to conclude that Russia remained poised for an invasion.
Andriy Parubiy, the head of Ukraine’s national security council, said in an interview that he was proceeding on a belief that Putin’s ultimate goal was to disrupt the Ukrainian presidential election scheduled for May 25 and that Russia would continue efforts to destabilise the east.
“We understand that a key task for Russia is to destroy the elections on May 25,” Parubiy said.
Yesterday, the Ukrainian security service posted a recording on its website that it said offered proof of Russian involvement in coordinating both the unrest in eastern Ukraine and the referendum on independence, including plans to falsify the results.
The recording was of a phone call that the security service said took place between a pro-Russian political operative named Aleksandr Barkashov, who was identified as being in Moscow, and Dmytro Boitsov, a leader of separatist rebels in Donetsk.
The authenticity of the recording could not be independently verified.
In the conversation, riddled with expletives, Boitsov suggests cancelling the referendum and Barkashov insists that it must go forward, by saying that it is ridiculous to consider holding a real vote.
“Are you going to walk around and collect papers?” he asks incredulously, his words punctuated by curses. “Are you insane?”
“Let’s say that 89 per cent voted for the Donetsk Republic and that’s it,” Barkashov says.
The referendum seems intended to mimic the series of events that led up to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In that case, however, Moscow had made clear that it supported the idea of a public referendum on independence. Putin’s remarks suggested a far murkier situation, in which the Kremlin does not want to take responsibility for eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials in Kiev have already conceded that it will be virtually impossible to carry out the presidential election in some of the besieged areas in eastern Ukraine.