Donetsk gears up for independence referendum

Printing machines
Image caption Pro-Russian activsts have been busy printing ballot papers for an independence poll in eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine have decided to go ahead with an independence referendum on Sunday, despite a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone it. Preparations for the ballot are already well under way in the Donetsk region.

More than three million ballot papers have already been distributed across the Donetsk region for the referendum due to take place on Sunday, according to the pro-Russian activist Roman Lyagin, who describes himself as the "chairman of the central election commission of the Donetsk People's Republic".

The nerve centre of the operation is inside one of the regional government buildings in the centre of the city of Donetsk, which have been occupied by separatist rebels for weeks.

Surrounded by barricades flying the Russian flag, the atmosphere feels volatile as young men, some wearing camouflage, mill around acting as guards.

At the main entrance, we wave the accreditation cards issued to us by the self-declared People's Republic, to help ease our way through.

Inside, Mr Lyagin, the referendum's chief organiser, leads the way up a flight of stairs to a conference room where printing machines have been lined up for non-stop duty.

They've been working 24 hours a day for the past two weeks, churning out ballot papers and information leaflets about the referendum.

'On schedule'

Some remind people to vote "yes" for self-determination for the People's Republic.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Armed pro-Russian militants continue to guard some government buildings in Donetsk

"The ballot papers are being sent out right now to the local election commission offices and then distributed to the polling stations. These, as usual, will be in schools and hospitals. We are working according to schedule and have everything we need," said Mr Lyagin.

"There is only one reason for the referendum and that is to have self-determination. Maybe we want to remain part of Ukraine, or become independent or join up with Russia. That will be decided later," he added.

Mr Lyagin claims to have 20,000 people ready to work as election officials in the polling stations and expects a voter turnout of around 70%.

Referendum denounced

If the ballot goes ahead, the result will apparently be announced less than 24 hours after voting ends on Sunday night.

And yet Mr Lyagin admits he's not been able to get hold of the official voter list for the Donetsk region, relying instead on an old list from the parliamentary election two years ago.

"The voting lists are held by the SBU (the Ukrainian intelligence agency), " he explained.

Image caption Pro-Kiev activist Yevgenny Semechin (R) told the BBC's Richard Galpin (L) that polls showed a majority wanted to live in a united country

The central government has denounced the planned referendum as illegal.

And supporters of the government in Kiev, fearing the referendum could lead to the break up of the country, have launched their own campaign in Donetsk and the neighbouring region of Luhansk, where there may also be a vote.

They want to counter the narrative put out by the separatists.


Earlier this week, they carried out an opinion poll in both regions to find out if there really was a groundswell of support in eastern Ukraine for independence or for becoming part of Russia.

"The result was pretty much the same in Donetsk and Luhansk, with our poll showing that more than 70% of people want to live in a united country," says the activist Yevgenny Semechin, who has received threats because of his work.

"So people may well be sceptical about the results of the upcoming independence referendum. We think it will be like in Crimea where the result was known ahead of the election, as ordered by the Kremlin. Our poll is more legitimate and representative."

Image caption Pro-Kiev activsts say their opinion poll shows 70% of people in the area are in favour of a united Ukraine

Mr Semechin's biggest hope is that in the next few days, the Ukrainian military pushes ahead rapidly with its operation to flush the pro-Russia militants out of the towns and cities in the east where they've occupied key buildings.

"Then it is possible the separatists' referendum will not take place," he said.

But the pro-Russians in Donetsk are clearly determined to press ahead with the vote regardless. One activist told the BBC: "We can't live with Kiev anymore."