NEW: Polls close; results are expected later
Pro-Russian separatist denies allegations of voter election fraud
CNN crew sees some voting twice at one polling station
Kiev and West have condemned vote as illegitimate
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.
Voters in the city of Donetsk faced this question on the ballot: “Do you support the Act of Independence of the People’s Republic of Donetsk?” The options are “yes” or “no.” A similar question is being put to voters in Luhansk.
Many of the voters were not on the outdated registration lists but were allowed to vote after showing identification documents.
There also seemed to be no system in place to prevent one person from voting at multiple polling stations.
A CNN crew saw several people vote twice at one polling station, where the ballot boxes were decorated with new Donetsk independence flags.
There was also a report of video showing three men arrested near Slovyansk with boxes of “yes” ballots in their car.
But in a Sunday afternoon news conference, the head of the People’s Republic of Donetsk Central Election Committee, Boris Litvinov, disputed reports that people were voting twice in some areas. Litivinov said the lines were so long that many people had a hard time voting once, let alone twice.
He also denied the report about ballot fraud. Litvinov said there was no reason for pro-Russian activists to cheat because voter turnout was so high.
The polls were told to stay open for 14 hours, rather than the usual 12, to allow time to add people to the voter list if necessary, the election committee said, adding that access to the most recent electoral rolls has been barred by Kiev.
Litvinov was the official to announce that polls had closed. Results are expected later.
Two incidents heightened tensions at polling places Sunday.
Rubber bullets were fired into the air at a station in Donetsk, said election committee member Sergey Tretyakov.
Tretyakov also said police in Krasnoarmeysk tried to prevent people from voting.
The central government in Kiev has declared the polls illegal.
Russia’s mixed messages
The message coming from Moscow on the referendum appears mixed.
Russian police officers oversaw voting at a Moscow polling station erected for expat Ukrainians to vote in the Donetsk and Luhansk referendums.
But last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin also urged the pro-Russian sympathizers to delay the referendum to give dialogue “the conditions it needs to have a chance.”
Putin’s unexpected call appears to have dented the confidence of some pro-Russian activists.
However, representatives of the pro-Russian groups in Donetsk and Luhansk voted to go ahead with it.
Meanwhile, in Slovyansk, 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 listed the location and voting hours and advised voters to bring a passport. The banner was shown only on the Russia 24 channel, not on other channels.
Blood and balaclavas
A vote for autonomy is a vote for the self-destruction of the east, Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has said.
It would cut residents off from the national economy and social programs, he said. “It is a step [to] nowhere for these regions. It is euphoria that may lead to very complex consequences, and many people can already feel them.”
They have felt the pain in bloodshed, at graves and in burned-out ruins still smoldering in the east, where ethnic Russian militiamen have battled Ukrainian security forces.
At least seven people were killed and 39 others were injured Friday in the southeastern city of Mariupol, regional sources said.
The electoral commission office in Donetsk was ringed with sandbags and barbed wire on Saturday.
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.
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.
Deadly clashes have also stained Mariupol and Odessa, as well as Slovyansk, where separatists hold key government buildings and remain in a standoff with Ukrainian military forces. Militants have erected concrete barricades on the roads into town there.
Vote’s legitimacy in question
If the referendum passes, it would offer a stark contrast to recent polling by the Pew Research Center, which found 70% of people in eastern Ukraine want the country to remain united.
Litvinov said Sunday that if voters agree to secede from Ukraine, the next logical step is another referendum in the next several months on joining Russia.
Whatever the outcome, the vote has already been condemned as illegitimate 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.”
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.”
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.
Russia annexed the southern region of Crimea after announced results in a separatist referendum showed more than 90% in favor of joining Russia. In an independent Pew survey, 54% of Crimea residents showed support for secession.
The Kremlin has said that it has no interest in annexing other parts of Ukraine. But it is pushing for the country to adopt a constitution that would give regions where Russian is widely spoken a larger voice in policy-making.
Critics fear that the creation of autonomous pro-Russian regions in Ukraine would cement alliances with the Kremlin that would give it essential control over them.
CNN’s Atika Shubert reported from Donetsk; Matthew Chance reported from Moscow, and Ben Brumfield reported and wrote in Atlanta. CNN’s Kellie Morgan, Shelby Lin Erdman, Sara Mazloumsaki, as well as journalists Victoria Butenko and Lena Kashkarova, contributed to this report.