Militants Push Ahead With Vote, Despite Fighting In Eastern Ukraine
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Nearly two months since a cease-fire was declared in eastern Ukraine, government troops and Separatists continue fighting and dying. Despite that, it's election season. Last week in Ukraine pro-Western parties won a large parliamentary majority, but Separatists in the east did not take part and this Sunday they're scheduled to hold their own parliamentary election. Ukrainian officials are calling it an illegal farce.
NPR's Corey Flintoff has the story from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The Separatist election will take place in a region where all sides agree that the cease-fire is a truce in name only. Shellfire pounds the front lines every day and the Ukrainian government just reported that seven of its soldiers have been killed in the past 24 hours. Despite that, the self-proclaimed prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, is in campaign mode. Dressed in camouflage fatigues, he put in an appearance at a Soviet-style patriotic concert yesterday where the featured song was called "Donbas Speaks Russian."
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).
FLINTOFF: Donbas is the name for the coal-rich industrial region that's the heart of the Russian-backed Separatist movement. Zakharchenko took to the stage to promise that arts and culture would be restored under his government.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONCERT)
ALEXANDER ZAKHARCHENKO: (Through translator) As prime minister, I promise all cultural workers that next month all damaged buildings, such as colleges and museums, will be on the list for reconstruction.
FLINTOFF: He's been making promises of reconstruction to miners, factory hands and pensioners all over the region, but there's little doubt that Zakharchenko will keep his job. There are two other candidates on the ballot but they're relatively obscure figures who haven't been campaigning. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko denounced the planned election.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PETRO POROSHENKO: (Through translator) A fair society can only be built on fair elections, the opposite of these the pseudo-elections that terrorists and bandits are now planning in the occupied area.
FLINTOFF: Most importantly, Ukrainian officials say the vote in the Separatist areas violates the so-called Minsk agreement, which brought about a shaky cease-fire between the government and the militants. Still, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country believes the election will be legitimate.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
SERGEI LAVROV: (Through translator) We consider it one of the most important parts of the Minsk agreements. We will certainly recognize the results.
FLINTOFF: Russian analyst Boris Makarenko says that the election doesn't necessarily violate the wording of the Minsk agreement because that wording is rather vague, but, he says, it does violate the spirit.
BORIS MAKARENKO: Because the Minsk agreement in no way recognized the so-called quote, unquote, "republics" as being separate from Ukraine, which implies that any electoral processes in these territories should follow the Ukrainian electoral laws.
FLINTOFF: Makarenko is the director of a Moscow-based think tank, the Center for Political Technologies. He says he's puzzled by Lavrov's statement in advance that Russia will recognize the results of the election because recognition can only come after the vote, when observers can judge whether it was free and fair.
Sunday's vote is unlikely to mend the frayed cease-fire and it could trigger more violent confrontations.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Donetsk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.