Separatists in eastern Ukraine appeared to be on track to declare victory in a referendum Sunday that Kiev and the West called illegal and riddled with irregularities.
The vote ratchets up tensions between the Kremlin, which may recognize the referendum, and the nascent government in Kiev, which is struggling to regain control of the two provinces that it accuses Moscow of destabilizing through support of rebels.
Heavy turnout suggested that weeks of instability and violence in the region had helped turn simmering anger against Kiev into open defiance and separatism that polls showed barely existed earlier this year.
Separatist leaders said they opened more than 1,500 voting stations across one province alone. In the coastal city of Mariupol, the scene of deadly clashes last week between separatists and Ukrainian soldiers, thousands of people turned out to join lines that stretched for city blocks. Some residents brought lawn chairs to rest their legs as they waited.
For eastern Ukraine, whose heavy industries are dependent on exports, declaration of independence could thrust it into an international pariah status that would cripple its economy. Barring Crimea-style annexation by Russia, in which Moscow publicly has expressed no interest, the separatist-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic could find itself with crimped export markets and unemployment problems.
Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, assailed the vote as “self destruction.”
“This is a step into the abyss for these regions,” he said in comments carried on his website. “Those who favor independence don’t realize it means total destruction of the economy, social programs, even life for most people in these regions.”
The government has said it is working on a decentralization program that would hand more power to the regions to manage local affairs.
But separatist leaders pushed ahead with the referendum anyway. Roman Lyagin, the election chief of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said, “It’s better to live in isolation than under occupations.”
Ukraine’s central government, which has lost control of much of the region, did little to hinder the voting Sunday. For weeks, local police have failed to function as an effective force, and a concerted Ukrainian military operation against a rebel stronghold in the city of Slovyansk has failed to make much headway.