Much to the dismay of the central government of Kiev, the vote for secession in eastern Ukraine, will take place on Sunday, May 11. Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin pressed pro-Moscow Ukrainians to delay the referendum to split from the country and become an independent republic, the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic remained defiant.
To make their point, pro-separatists re-occupied the city hall of the southeastern coastal city of Mariupol.
Putin was in Crimea on Friday, where he lauded the return of the Black Sea peninsula to Russia. This was the president’s first official visit to Crimea since his government´s annexation of it in March. Shortly after his arrival, Ukraine´s Foreign Ministry condemned the visit, calling it an affront to Ukraine’s sovereignty, expressing sentiments made by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
The plebiscite precedes Ukraine’s presidential elections, slated to take place on May 25.
''If we don’t have a referendum on the 11th then we will lose the trust of the people,'' a rebel spokesperson said. ''We face the choice: referendum or war, and we choose the peaceful way.''
At present, it is unclear how Ukrainians will vote on the referendum.
Polls from April indicate that a majority of citizens oppose breaking away from Ukraine. Pew Research’s Global Attitudes Project projects 77 percent want the country to remain united and better governed, while 14 percent favor parts of the Ukraine seceding.
The poll also demonstrates a division between eastern Ukraine, which has the country’s majority of Russian speakers, and the western pro-Kiev part of the country, where 70 percent of those polled opposed the referendum.
Denis Pushilin, a separatist leader, argued that the plebiscite is about 'sovereignty, the will of the people.'' As a precedent, he cited Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and is now recognized by over 100 countries.
In Brussels, the European Union condemned the plans for the referendum. NATO said there was no evidence to support Putin’s claim that he had withdrawn 40,000 Russian troops from Ukraine’s eastern border.
The independence vote has also created controversy beyond Ukraine and Russia’s borders. On May 7, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. and its allies consider the referendum ''bogus,'' adding that the plebiscite ''will create even more problems in the effort to de-escalate the situation.'' Indeed, some fear that if the referendum goes through, Ukraine will enter full scale civil war.
Twenty-year-old Zhenya Denyesh told Reuters, ''I wanted to come as early as I could. We all want to live in our own country.'' When asked what he thought might succeed the vote, he said, ''It will still be war.''
The referendum comes after a week of violence, in which approximately a dozen rebel fighters are estimated to have been killed during fights with the Ukrainian army.
In the nearby eastern region of Luhansk, another referendum for secession has been called.