People in Russian-backed areas of eastern Ukraine re-elected separatist leaders at the weekend, according to results released yesterday of polls condemned as illegal by Kiev and Western countries.
The elections were to choose heads of government and legislature members in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, where separatists have fought Ukrainian forces since the spring of 2014 in a war that has killed more than 10,000 people.
Authorities pulled out all the stops to encourage a high turnout, setting up food stalls near polling stations and offering lottery tickets to those who voted. Officials said more than 80 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots in the Donetsk stronghold, while turnout stood at 77 percent in the Lugansk region at the close of polls.
Security was tight for Sunday's vote with gun-toting, camouflage-clad guards deployed to ensure order. Denis Pushilin, the 37-year-old acting Donetsk leader, was elected with 61 percent of the vote with almost all ballots counted, the local electoral commission said. Leonid Pasechnik, the acting Lugansk leader, took 68 percent of the vote.
Although a 2015 accord on ending the war calls for local elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, critics including Ukraine's president, the U.S. and the European Union say the vote is illegitimate because it is conducted where Ukraine has no control.
The leaders of Germany and France, which helped negotiate that accord, dismissed "the illegal and illegitimate elections ... held today despite numerous appeals by the international community." Later Sunday, the spokesman for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he discussed the elections with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron amid ceremonies in Paris commemorating the end of World War I Sunday. In a statement after the meeting, Merkel and Macron said that holding "so-called" elections undermines Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, and urged all sides to respect the ceasefire and release political prisoners.
Germany, France and Ukraine are part of the so-called "Normandy format" countries seeking a resolution to the conflict. Russia is the fourth country in the format, which has not held talks in two years. Moscow, which denies funneling troops and arms across the border, says the polls are necessary to fill the power vacuum after the assassination of rebel Donetsk leader Alexander Zakharchenko.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and supported the outbreak of the insurgency in eastern Ukraine in what Kiev sees as punishment for its pivot to the West. While heavy fighting is over, the conflict regularly claims the lives of soldiers and civilians. Four Ukrainian soldiers had died in recent days, Kiev said on Saturday.