Donetsk: As differing sets of figures were released on the outcome of what was parsed as a secessionist referendum in two provinces of eastern Ukraine on Sunday, European capitals stepped up their threat to tighten sanctions against Moscow.
“Eighty, 10, 70,” a rebel official told Fairfax Media, meaning an 80 per cent "yes" vote; a 10 per cent "no" vote on a turnout of 70 per cent of eligible voters in the Donetsk region. No figures had been released for neighbouring Luhansk, which also voted.
But the head of Donetsk’s rebel electoral team Roman Lyagin told reporters of the "yes" tally: "Eighty-nine per cent, that's it." And by his reckoning the turnout had been 75 per cent of an estimated 3 million-plus voters.
Rushing to meet voter expectations heightened by the push for separation from Kiev, particularly after Moscow’s annexation in March of the Crimea region, a rebel leader in Donetsk warned as voting continued that Ukrainian troops serving in the region would be declared persona non grata.
"All military troops on our territory after the official announcement of referendum results will be considered illegal and declared occupiers," rebel leader Denis Pushilin said. "It is necessary to form state bodies and military authorities as soon as possible," he said.
Angered by Moscow’s reluctance or failure to dial down the secessionist hype in the east of the country, the European Union was expected to move on Monday towards widening sanctions imposed on Russian individuals after the Crimea debacle, to include companies.
The German and French leaders also warned that Moscow would be hit with even more sanctions unless it acted to ensure the push for secession, which is driven by pro-Moscow sentiment in the east, did not derail Ukraine’s planned May 25 presidential election.
In a joint statement, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Francois Hollande said: “We are ready to take further sanctions against Russia. There have been initial signs, but this must be strengthened so that the message gets through to eastern and southern parts of Ukraine that everyone wants fair and general presidential elections."
Sunday’s voting was marred by reports that Ukrainian national guardsmen had killed a young man who was waiting to vote at the town hall in rural Krasnoarmeysk; that national security forces confiscated ballot papers at Mariupol; and that rebels and national forces exchanged fire at Slaviansk, north of Donetsk.
Elsewhere, voters waited patiently to participate in one of the more perverse plebiscites in recent time - no observers; dated electoral roles; and polling stations staffed by vocal supporters of the "yes" answer to a question not easily understood in a referendum that had few rules, least of all about what kind of turnout would be required.
The ballot paper, on which voters had to tick the "tak" (yes) or "hi" (no) boxes, asked: "Do you support the act of state self-rule of the Donetsk People's Republic?"
Looking into the clear perspex ballot boxes at several polling places, Fairfax Media saw just a handful of papers on which "hi" had been marked.
Amid scattered reports of irregularities - some people voting more than once; a Russian journalist claiming he had been allowed to cast a vote - Mr Lyagin conceded the exercise was not perfect.
"We don't have a legitimate government in Kiev,” he told reporters. “There is a de facto president of Ukraine, the ousted Viktor Yanukovych, and just because he is not at his desk does not mean that other people can take over. We have people who are themselves illegal telling us that we are illegal.”
Legitimate or not, voters interviewed by Fairfax Media made clear they had a basket of grievances with the Kiev government.
At a school in Donetsk’s Voroshilovskiy district, Alla Kersanova said her vote to break with Ukraine was driven by two issues: “I am Russian ... and I don’t want Europe’s liberal laws on homosexuality.”
Complaining of the economic reforms needed for Ukraine to qualify for membership of the European Union, 30-year-old mechanical engineer Igor Buitrov claimed his "yes" vote was a vote for stability: “My future is with Moscow, not Europe.”
And at a rebel checkpoint on the outskirts of Slaviansk, the half-dozen men on duty, all buddies since they attended school together,complained mostly about economic issues. They were either unemployed, had poor-paying jobs in struggling enterprises or ran businesses that were in trouble.
While an effigy of a Ukrainian government soldier dangled from a noose above them, 24-year-old engineer Yuri Evchenko referred to the government forces in the area as "occupiers". Bitter about his low salary, he said: “All this will change under the Russians.”
Oleg Gerasimov, 31, blamed corruption in Kiev for the closure of a coalmine from which he had been made redundant - “and, yes, we’d have less corruption if we joined Russia”.
Demis Shpakovsky, a 31-year-old mechanic, argued: “For 24 years we have been independent and for 24 years Kiev has lied to us.”
The Foreign Ministry in Kiev branded the referendum a “criminal farce” and described the rebel leadership as a “gang of Russian terrorists”.
There might have been a different outcome to the referendum had Kiev found a way to encourage those who oppose any break with Kiev to attend and to vote "no". Recent opinion polls in the region show strong support for it remaining a part of Ukraine - as high as 70 per cent.
The country’s interim president Oleksandr Turchynov warned the rebel movements they could steer away from catastrophe by agreeing to talks with Kiev - but "terrorists" could not take part, he said.
"Those who stand for self-rule do not understand that it would mean complete destruction of the economy, social programs and life in general for the majority of the population in these regions," he posted on his website.
Sergiy Pashinskiy, a senior government official in Kiev, also resorted to the "they’re all terrorists" rhetoric, which seems only to inflame anti-Kiev passions in the east.
“The so-called referendum in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions is an attempt by the terrorists to cover up their crimes,” Mr Pashinskiy said, while threatening the referendum organisers would be prosecuted. “In fact, there is no referendum taking place.”
He said there was voting going on only in about one-third of the region, and that the organisers of the separatist balloting would be prosecuted.