Galvanized by fear and propaganda, residents of eastern Ukraine voted Sunday in a widely condemned and unmonitored referendum on independence that is expected to be declared an overwhelming victory by its separatist organizers.
Ukraine's central government in Kiev denounced the balloting in the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk as illegal, noting that territorial changes can be put to a vote only on a nationwide basis.
U.S. and European leaders warned the Kremlin and the pro-Russia militants occupying government headquarters in the eastern Ukraine region that they were enflaming already dangerously volatile passions in the deeply divided area long dominated by Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had called four days earlier for postponement of the vote at the urging of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Russia to allow more time for negotiation and diplomacy to resolve the Ukraine crisis.
But deadly confrontations earlier this month in the Ukrainian port cities of Odessa and Mariupol presented by Kremlin-controlled media as evidence of fascist aggression by the Ukrainian leadership in Kiev provided a groundswell of support for distancing this largely Russian-speaking region from the rest of Ukraine.
The single referendum question was simple in its wording but vague in its intent: Do you support the act of independence for the People's Republic of Donetsk?
Some, like medic Ninel Lvovich, said they voted "yes" out of despair that the region's problems can be resolved by either Kiev or Moscow.
"We want to decide our own affairs. We don't want America or Europe coming here, and I don't think we can count on Russia's help," Lvovich said, lamenting the shortages of medicines and supplies at the government hospital where she works and the rising prices for fuel and food in the region.
Others, like agricultural entrepreneur Yevgeny Kremnyev of militant-occupied Svyategorsk, voted for independence with the understanding that their autonomous republic will remain part of Ukraine but with more control over its foreign and economic policies. He said he intended to cast a ballot in the May 25 national presidential election, although he sees no candidate to his liking.
For many who voted in favor of the referendum, like small businessman Sergey Makarenko from the embattled city of Slovyansk, the ballot was a first step toward calling for annexation to Russia in the manner that Ukraine's Crimean peninsula was absorbed into the neighboring country in mid-March.
"I used to be in favor of a united and independent Ukraine, but not since [interim President Oleksandr] Turchynov came to power," Makarenko, an ethnic Russian, said in an interview after voting. "All the leaders of Ukraine in its 23 years of independence should be rounded up and put in prison."
Frustration with the unreformed economy, rampant corruption and antiquated industry of Ukraine's rust belt regions of Donetsk and Luhansk was a motivating factor for many who voted in the two regions' referendums on Sunday. But their conflicting expectations of the vote portend more disharmony for the largely Russian-speaking eastern and southern areas historically integrated with Russia.
At the ravaged and barricaded Donetsk regional government headquarters, pro-Russian separatists in grimy camouflage uniforms wielding guns, clubs and crossbows stood guard aside piles of tires, paving stones and barbed wire, vigilant against any move by Kiev-dispatched forces to try to retake control of the city center.
While the gunmen occupy only the one building and the Kiev loyalists they ousted a month ago carry on the work of running the region in temporary quarters only a few blocks away, there is a sense that the pro-Moscow militants can't be flushed from their stronghold without a massive deployment of force and loss of life.
Opinion polls conducted in April by both foreign and domestic agencies showed a sizable majority – at least 70% even in the eastern regions – opposed to secession from Ukraine or union with Russia.
But the May 2 clash between separatists and Ukrainian government supporters in Odessa that took nearly 50 lives, mostly pro-Russian militants, sent shock waves through the east.
On Friday's World War II Victory Day holiday, another violent confrontation between supporters and opponents of a united Ukraine left at least seven dead in Mariupol. That battle was portrayed by Kremlin-controlled Russian media as evidence that the Kiev government is bent on recovering the occupied areas even if it has to shoot innocent bystanders to do so.
"After Odessa and Mariupol, everyone should run to vote for independence. All Donetsk people want out from the Kiev government. We're all afraid now," said a 70-year-old retired teacher in a heavy lavender wool dress despite a sun-drenched day when temperatures were close to 80. Like many approached after casting their ballots, she refused to give her full name out of fear of government reprisal.
Supporters of the interim government that took power in Kiev following the February ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich were hard to find in this city of 1 million, despite the pro-Russia gunmen's limited physical control. At a shopping center on the outskirts of Donetsk, only one of dozens of shoppers approached about the referendum said he had stayed away from the polling places because he considered the ballot "illegal."
"I don't like these guys. I don't like where this is going at all. I don't want to kill anyone, so why do so many people have guns?" said Dmitri Postolovsky, a 33-year-old design engineer. He noted that the balloting was unsupervised and entirely lacking in automated tabulation.
At the occupied government headquarters, where electricity has been shut off in a vain attempt to drive out the militants, the breakaway Donetsk leadership predicted results would be determined by Monday afternoon.
Central Election Commission Director Roman Lagin said more than 69% of the Donetsk region's 3.5 million eligible voters had cast ballots by 4 p.m. He disputed reports by foreign media and Ukrainian government forces that several cars had been stopped at roadblocks and found to be delivering already filled-out ballots in favor of independence.
At a press conference inside the squalid Donetsk Republic headquarters, where the stairwells connecting 11 floors looted of furniture and office equipment are covered with cigarette butts and scraps of discarded food, Lagin was asked if the region would participate in the May 25 presidential election.