Ukraine separatists vow to go ahead with controversial referendum

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

DONETSK, Ukraine (CNN) — Pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine insisted Saturday that a controversial referendum on greater autonomy will go ahead — despite calls from Kiev and Moscow not to hold the vote amid soaring tensions.

The referendum is due to take place on Sunday in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, where armed groups have been involved in deadly clashes with Ukrainian security forces in recent days.

At least seven people were killed and 39 others were injured in violence Friday in the flashpoint southeastern city of Mariupol, the Donetsk regional health department said. Acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the casualty toll is higher.

The mood in the city of Donetsk was tense on the eve of the vote, as its residents wait to see what happens.

The head of the referendum committee for the self-declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” Boris Litvinov, insisted that the vote on greater local powers would go ahead and that preparations are well under way.

Litvinov told CNN that they are “90% ready” and that he expects a 70% turnout.

Voters will be asked the question, “Do you support the Act of Independence of People’s Republic of Donetsk?” The options are “yes” or “no.” A similar question will be put to voters in Luhansk.

Meanwhile, in a small town near Slavyansk in the northern Donetsk region, a Russian government-controlled TV channel was periodically showing a banner along the bottom of the screen that told viewers where they can vote in Sunday’s referendum.

That channel, Russia 24, is available over the air to residents of Donetsk, who can access it in their homes.

The banner lists the location and voting hours and advises voters to bring a passport. The banner is only shown on the Russia 24 channel and not on other channels.

The explicit advertising of voting places and times on a Russian state-controlled channel comes as President Vladimir Putin advised pro Russian activists here to delay their vote.

Ukraine government’s concern

Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told a Ukrainian TV show on Saturday that a move to federalization would be “self-destructive” for eastern Ukraine, according to his official web page.

“It is a step nowhere for these regions. It is euphoria that may lead to very complex consequences and many people can already feel them. Those who call for independence do not realize that it is full destruction of economy, social programs and life in general for the most people in this area.”

Turchynov said he was concerned by some separatists’ attempts to turn Donetsk and Luhansk “into area of constant military actions, economic ruin and no prospects” and urged those not responsible for serious crimes to turn in their weapons in return for amnesty.

Ballot boxes

The electoral commission office in Donetsk was ringed with sandbags and barbed wire as of Saturday morning.

Men in balaclavas lounged outside tents pitched nearby, looking relaxed. They wore the orange-and-black St. George ribbon, which has become a symbol of the pro-Russian separatists.

Some activists could be seen loading ballot boxes into a van for distribution to polling stations. But it’s not yet clear where they will be or how easy it will be for people to cast a ballot if they choose to.

According to the social media pages of the Donetsk Central Election Committee, any resident aged 18 or older who can present a passport with a Donetsk region registration stamp is entitled to vote there.

The polls will stay open for 14 hours, rather than the usual 12, to allow time to add people to the voter list if necessary, the committee said, adding that access to the most recent electoral rolls has been barred by Kiev.

The activists say ballots will be distributed across the two regions. However, it’s not clear whether they have enough capacity to cover the whole area.

Also unclear is what may happen after the referendum, if it does, in fact, go ahead.

Vote’s legitimacy in question

Results are expected to emerge late Sunday but whatever the outcome, the vote has already been condemned as illegitimate by the interim government in Kiev, as well as by several Western powers.

Speaking Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “We consider the referendum scheduled for tomorrow illegitimate and focus on the (presidential) election on May 25 in the entire Ukraine.”

Earlier this week, Russian President Putin also urged the pro-Russian sympathizers to delay the referendum to give dialogue “the conditions it needs to have a chance.”

However, representatives of the pro-Russian groups in Donetsk and Luhansk voted to go ahead with it, casting doubt on the West’s contention that Moscow is covertly coordinating the separatist movement.

According to a poll released Thursday, a majority of Ukrainians agree their country should remain a unified state.

The Pew Research Center poll, conducted in the first half of April, found that 77% of Ukrainians want the country to remain united; 70% in the east feel the same. Things differ in Crimea, where 54% of those surveyed voice support for the right to secede.

On Friday, Putin made his first visit to Crimea since the Ukrainian territory was annexed by Russia in March in the wake of a controversial referendum in that region.

His appearance at Victory Day celebrations in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, hours after he took part in a massive military parade in Moscow, was greeted by cheering crowds amid strong pro-Russian sentiment.

In Washington, the White House took notice of Putin’s visit and reiterated its rejection of Crimea’s annexation.

“Such a visit will only serve to fuel tensions,” National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson said.

Barricades, polling booths

Back in Donetsk on Saturday, a dozen men lined up in front of the regional administration building to sign up for “military service” with the pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic. They showed their ID documents and registered at a small tent.

Meanwhile, an armored personnel carrier sporting Russian flags drove through with men wearing balaclavas on top, cheered on by some of the security volunteers.

In Mariupol, the simmering tensions between pro-Russian groups and government forces flared into violence Friday after clashes at the city police department.

On the eve of Sunday’s vote, the streets were stained with blood, and City Hall and police station smoldered in ruins.

The situation was tense outside the office belonging to the head of the referendum, protected by sandbags, barbed wire and men in balaclavas.

There also have been deadly clashes in Odessa and Slavyansk, another pro-Russian stronghold where separatists hold key government buildings.

Ukrainian military forces remained in an uneasy standoff with militants in Slavyansk, who have erected concrete barricades on the roads into town.

Ahead of the planned referendum, officials in the town hastily erected polling booths in some places and prepared voter lists. Billboards were so bare of any announcements that Slavyansk hardly seemed a city on the verge of a historic vote.

The self-declared mayor of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, told a news conference he expected a turnout of “100%,” give or take those few people who were unable to get to polling stations.

However, despite the rhetoric, Putin’s unexpected call to delay the referendum appears to have dented the confidence of some pro-Russian activists.

France, Germany ready to take further sanctions

The interim government in Kiev, which took power after ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia in February, is due to hold presidential elections May 25.

Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, speaking together in Germany, warned that Russia could face consequences if the presidential vote does not go ahead as planned.

“If no internationally recognized presidential election were to take place, this would inevitably further destabilize the country,” Merkel said.

In that case, she said, “we are ready to take further sanctions against Russia.”

In a joint statement, Merkel and Hollande called for national dialogue and proposals for constitutional reform ahead of the May 25 elections and said the vote should be held under the observation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

They set out a series of steps needed to restore stability to Ukraine and said these must be a priority in the coming days.

“We deeply regret the recent violent events in, among other places, Odessa and Mariupol, which led to unacceptable losses of human lives,” they said in the joint statement.

“The illegal ownership of weapons must immediately come to an end. Weapons should be collected under observation of the OSCE starting on May 15.

“This will make it possible for Ukrainian security forces to refrain from using force in their operations. During this time, the legal use of force to protect people and infrastructures must remain judicious.”

Merkel and Hollande also said that Russian troops along the Ukrainian border “should undertake visible steps to reduce their readiness.”

Putin announced a troop pullback Wednesday but NATO says it has seen no signs of a withdrawal of Russian forces from the border area.

Amid the war of words, Russian state media reported Saturday that Ukraine had prevented a plane carrying Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin from entering its airspace after leaving Moldova.

“This is a flagrant violation of international law,” official news agency RIA Novosti quotes Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, who was also on the flight, as saying. Rogozin later tweeted that he was back in Moscow.

By Atika Shubert and Laura Smith-Spark

CNN’s Atika Shubert reported from Donetsk and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, Kellie Morgan, Lindsay Isaac, Ben Brumfield and Michael Martinez, as well as journalists Victoria Butenko and Lena Kashkarova, contributed to this report.