Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine have declared independence, undermining an upcoming May 25 presidential election, strengthening the Kremlin’s hand and putting pressure on Kiev to hold talks with the self-proclaimed regional leaders.
The declarations of independence by Donetsk and Luhansk come just 13 days ahead of a Ukraine national presidential election, which both regions say they will not take part in.
Separatist leaders said 89 percent of those who cast ballots on Sunday in the Donetsk region and about 96 percent of those who turned out in Luhansk voted for sovereignty.
Voters “have chosen that path that has enabled the formation of an independent state, the Luhansk People’s Republic,” said self-declared “people’s governor” Valery Bolotov at a rally in the city of Luhansk.
The crowd cheered enthusiastically, but Bolotov stopped short of declaring the region’s desire to join Russia.
Donetsk, however, did ask to join its neighbour’s federation.
“We, the people of the Donetsk People’s Republic, based on the results of the May 11, 2014, referendum, declare that henceforth the Donetsk People’s Republic will be deemed a sovereign state,” Denis Pushilin, co-chairman of the separatist government, said to applause on Monday.
“The people of Donetsk have always been part of the Russian world, regardless of ethnic affiliation. For us, the history of Russia is our history,” he said.
Both Donetsk and Luhansk said the Ukraine presidential election on May 25 would not be held in the newly independent regions, a status unacknowledged by Kiev.
For its part, Russia signalled it had no intention of subsuming eastern Ukraine the way it annexed Crimea in March.
Instead, Moscow is pushing to include eastern regions in negotiations on Ukraine’s future, suggesting that Russia prefers a political, not military, solution to its worst standoff with the West since the Cold War.
Such talks are central to a potential path towards peace outlined on Monday by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The plan laid out by Swiss President Didier Burkhalter calls on all sides to refrain from violence and urges immediate amnesty, talks on decentralisation and the status of the Russian language.
Acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk pledged on Monday to hold talks with those in Ukraine’s east. But he gave no specifics and did not address Sunday’s vote or the declarations of independence by the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
“We would like to launch the broad national dialogue with the east, centre, the west, and all of Ukraine,” Yatsenyuk told a news conference in Brussels, adding that the agenda should include changes to the constitution to give more power to the regions.