Ukraine rebels' no-frills referendum fraught with perils

By Matt Robinson

By Matt Robinson

DONETSK Ukraine (Reuters) - A little over 1,200 euros might seem a small price to pay for self-rule, but that's how much vote organisers in this would-be republic say they have spent on a referendum on Sunday that has the potential to plunge Ukraine into civil war.

    Five hundred euros, or 8,000 hryvnia, went on toner for three borrowed printers that have churned out ballot papers for more than three million eligible participants in the vote, which has been declared illegal by Kiev.

    The list of voters is two years old and there will be no minimum turnout required for the result to stand. Nor have any outside observers been invited to the area which pro-Russian rebels have declared a "People's Republic".

"Do you support the act of self-rule of the People's Republic of Donetsk?" the ballot paper asks, using a vague term which can also mean sovereignty.

    Bar a small illustration at either end of the ballot paper, the black-and-white printed page contains no special markings that might prevent it being duplicated.

    "Okay, it's not really in line with the law, but I think that's the only way out," said Roman Lyagin, the 33-year-old head of Donetsk’s hastily-established election commission.

    The amateur air of Sunday's plebiscite in eastern Ukraine belies the ramifications it carries for the worst East-West standoff since the end of the Cold War.

    The potential for manipulation is enormous.

Ukraine's state security service has already released what it says is a taped phone conversation between a Russian nationalist leader and rebel chief in Donetsk in which the Russian tells him to fake the result. "Just do what you like and write that it was 99 percent," the voice says.

    Reuters cannot independently verify the tape's authenticity.

    Voting will run between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. (0500-1900 GMT), when counting will begin at 53 locations across the rebel zones of Donetsk and Luhansk.

    The ballot boxes will then be brought by car to the regional capitals through checkpoints manned variously by pro-Russian militiamen and Ukrainian security forces, who are in the process of trying to dislodge the separatists.

    Lyagin, a former political consultant for the Party of Regions of ousted pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich, says he hopes to have a result by 3 p.m. on Monday (1200 GMT).

But he knows it won't be easy: "If they (Ukrainian forces) blockade the region, we're going to have a big problem," he said.

    With a country-wide presidential election planned for May 25, Ukraine's Western-backed government has vowed to press ahead with a military offensive to wrest back towns and cities where over the past month public buildings have fallen to masked men in military fatigues, the same kind of 'volunteers' who will provide security for Sunday's vote.

    "Most of the (election) commission members are women, and order will be provided by husbands, brothers, children…" said Lyagin. "There’s no need for concern."

    "Why isn’t there any special protection on the ballot papers?" he said, responding to a reporter’s question. "Because we don’t have the budget."

    "We’re using schools, hospitals, ballot boxes, offices, everything that was supposed to be used for the presidential election, we’re using now for the referendum," he said.

    "In essence, it’s a people’s referendum, carried out by simple people, without money."

    Leaders of the pro-Russian uprising in this industrial corner of Ukraine have said little about what their future ‘republic’ will look like, what powers it will have and whether it will seek to join Russia, like Crimea in late March.

    The referendum in mainly Russian Crimea asked if people wanted to join Russia and was followed quickly by absorption by the Russian Federation after results showed a resounding "yes".

Denis Pushilin, one of the separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine, where the majority of people are Russian speaking Ukrainians, said Donetsk was not seeking recognition.

    "This is not about independence but sovereignty, the will of the people," he said, in the kind of opaque language that has ordinary residents confused as to what exactly they are being asked to endorse.

    He cited the example of Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and has been recognised by more than 100 countries.

    Opinion polls suggest most want to remain within Ukraine, but as some kind of autonomous republic able to resist the pro-Western path Kiev has set the country on since the ouster of Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich in late February.

What they are being asked to vote on can be translated loosely as "state sovereignty" or "state self-rule" – a term that appears designed to win support across the spectrum of opinion in Donetsk and Luhansk, where some want decentralisation, others want a federal state and where hardliners see their future only in Russia.

    A “Yes’ vote would potentially open the door to all three.

    "We are not separatists or terrorists. We are not about to draw new borders in Europe," said Lyagin, but in the same breath said he saw his future as part of Russia.

    "The best solution, speaking as a man and not as part of the election commission, would be for Donetsk region to become part of the Russian Federation. That would calm things down here."

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)