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Donetsk Rebels Hold Controversial Government Elections


Just a week after Ukraine held its parliamentary elections, separatists in the eastern part of the country are holding a vote of their own. They say the election will create legitimate governments in two self-declared people's republics.

Ukrainian, American, and European leaders have denounced the elections as illegal. Russia says it will recognize the results. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us from the rebel-held city of Donetsk where voting is taking place. Good morning, Corey.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: First off, could you just explain, what are people voting for in these elections?

FLINTOFF: They have three choices for prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, although there isn't really much choice. The front-runner is the current prime minister, Alexander Zaharchenko, and the other two candidates are obscure figures who haven't really been campaigning.

Zaharchenko is a former electrician. He's 38 years old. He now commands a big militia here in Donetsk. He's from the region, and he just became prime minister in August when the previous leader went home to Russia.

This is a depressed mining and industrial region. And he's been promising voters that he'll renew the economy and raise salaries and pensions.

MARTIN: OK, so you've been out at polling places, I understand, this morning. What did you see there?

FLINTOFF: In one place where Zaharchenko voted himself, there was only a trickle of voters. and they were overwhelmingly outnumbered by journalists. But we also visited a school where several hundred people were lined up to vote. And the process was actually going pretty briskly.

People we talked with had various reasons for voting. Some said they were against the government in Kiev. They wanted their own independent state. Some wanted to join Russia. And others said they just want an end to the war and return to normal life.

MARTIN: The United States, the European Union, and Ukraine itself have all called this vote illegal. What is the argument?

FLINTOFF: They say the main reason is that the vote violates the agreement that brought about a semi-ceasefire here. That agreement was worked out with Ukraine, with the separatists, and with Russia. And in fact, Zaharchenko was the main negotiator for the rebels. It specified that the separatists could have an election but that it had to be carried out under Ukrainian law. And this vote, of course, is not being held under Ukrainian law or any internationally recognized procedure. So the Western allies say they won't recognize the result.

MARTIN: So while these Western governments aren't recognizing it, the Russian government is. So what are the implications of that?

FLINTOFF: It will be one more source of contention between Russia and the West. And things could get much worse. The ceasefire is pretty much a fiction already. There's fighting every day, especially here in Donetsk. We've been hearing credible reports that there's another big convoy of weapons that's arrived from Russia. And it's very possible that full-scale fighting could break out again as soon as this election is over.

If there's more evidence that Russian troops are part of the fighting, then the West is going to have to figure out some response, whether it's new sanctions against Russia or more military support for Ukraine.

MARTIN: So Corey, the U.S. and Western allies aren't recognizing this. Russia is. But what is the point of this election? If the Ukrainian government in Kiev isn't acknowledging it, is there just symbolic weight to this vote for people in that region?

FLINTOFF: There is, in fact, a great deal of symbolic weight. You know, as I said, the people we talked with said that they want their own state. The separatist officials say that they believe this will give them international credibility, especially with recognition from Russia. And they're hoping that that will force the rest of the world to recognize them as some sort of legitimate government. It seems unlikely that that's going to happen. But this is a symbolically important act here.

MARTIN: NPR's Corey Flintoff, speaking to us from Donetsk. Thanks so much, Corey.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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