Eastern Ukraine elects separatist leaders as West rejects polls

Donetsk: People in Russian-backed areas of eastern Ukraine re-elected separatist leaders at the weekend, according to results released on Monday of polls condemned as illegal by Kiev and Western countries.
Elections in the Donetsk and Lugansk “People’s Republics”, controlled by separatists since breaking away from Ukraine’s pro-Western government in 2014, took place after the killing of the rebel Donetsk “president” in a bomb attack in August.
Security was tight for Sunday’s vote with gun-toting, camouflage-clad guards deployed to ensure order.
Denis Pushilin, the 37-year-old acting Donetsk leader, was elected with 61 per cent of the vote with almost all ballots counted, the local electoral commission said.
Leonid Pasechnik, the acting Lugansk leader, took 68 per cent of the vote.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel branded the vote “illegal and illegitimate” following a meeting with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko on the sidelines of World War I commemorations also attended by Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Sunday.
“These so-called elections undermine the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine,” the pair said in a joint statement.
Washington and Brussels had asked Russia not to allow the polls to go ahead, arguing they would further hamper efforts to end a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014.
“The people in eastern Ukraine will be better off within a unified Ukraine at peace rather than in a second-rate police state run by crooks and thugs, all subsidised by Russian taxpayers,” tweeted Kurt Volker, the US special envoy to Ukraine, on the day of the polls.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and supported the outbreak of the insurgency in eastern Ukraine in what Kiev sees as punishment for its pivot to the West.
While heavy fighting is over, the conflict regularly claims the lives of soldiers and civilians. Four Ukrainian soldiers had died in recent days, Kiev said on Saturday.
Peace negotiations have hit deadlock and Western-backed accords agreed in 2015 are largely moribund.
Moscow, which denies funnelling troops and arms across the border, says the polls are necessary to fill the power vacuum after the assassination of rebel Donetsk leader Alexander Zakharchenko. Authorities pulled out all the stops to encourage a high turnout, setting up food stalls near polling stations and offering lottery tickets to those who voted.
Officials said more than 80 per cent of eligible voters had cast their ballots in the Donetsk stronghold, while turnout stood at 77 per cent in the Lugansk region at the close of polls. — AFP