DONETSK, Ukraine – Residents of two regions in eastern Ukraine turned out in significant numbers Sunday to vote in support of self-rule in a referendum that threatens to deepen divisions in a country already heading perilously toward civil war.
The wording of the referendum was vague, asking whether voters favored self-determination rather than outright independence or joining Russia. That meant some of those voting yes wanted more autonomy but not necessarily to split from Ukraine.
But the vote infuriated the Ukrainian government. The Foreign Ministry called it a criminal farce arranged by a gang of Russian terrorists, reflecting the government’s view that Russian agents are behind the breakaway movement. Many residents who oppose the separatist movement boycotted the vote.
Both the European Union and the Obama administration said they would not recognize the results of the balloting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which they called illegal.
Late Sunday night, Roman Lyagin, head of the separatist election commission in Donetsk, said that nearly three-quarters of the 3.32 million eligible voters in the region had cast ballots, a figure that was not possible to confirm independently. Just over 89 percent of voters approved the measure, he said. Figures for Luhansk were not immediately available.
The vote will complicate Ukraine’s efforts to re-establish order in the wake of revolt.
Ukraine has scheduled national elections for May 25. But given Sunday’s result, Lyagin said, it is not logical to have the presidential election here on the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
The U.S. and European governments have threatened Russia with further sanctions if the national vote is disrupted.
Ukrainian troops have been trying to wrest back control of eastern cities where separatists have seized government buildings and set up checkpoints manned by militias. Despite the government’s condemnation of the vote, its armed forces generally allowed balloting to proceed Sunday.
But Ukrainian national guardsmen shut down the voting in the eastern city of Krasnoarmeysk and later fired into a crowd outside the town hall, news services reported.
The Associated Press said one of its photographers saw two people lying motionless on the ground after the clash. Denis Pushilin, a leader of the rebellion, told the ITAR-Tass news agency that there were an unspecified number of deaths.