Ukraine crisis: The West will not accept result of a ballot for autonomy in Donetsk

The separatist elections in the east may only help Moscow retain the upper hand
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The Independent Online

The last time Roman Lyagin organised a ballot in Donetsk, the situation in the city was different. Kiev still held most levers of power, while Mr Lyagin and other Russian-backed separatists had barricaded themselves in the regional administration building, awaiting an assault by special forces that never materialised.

Now, Mr Lyagin is the man in charge of the first Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) "elections", which are set for today. If his aim in the 11 May referendum was to establish the new "People's Republic", then today the goal is legitimising the de facto autonomous state. Moscow prepared the ground in recent weeks by withdrawing advisers from key roles in the administration, and anointing loyal representatives who act with a sense of permanency about them.

Mr Lyagin will, of course, have a tough job persuading the international community that today's vote is any more valid than his widely-mocked referendum. He admits there are no reliable voter lists, meaning people will be able to vote using their passports alone, potentially multiple times. Both Kiev and its Western allies have said they will not recognise the vote. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, rang President Vladimir Putin on Friday to make that point clear.

Keen to afford respectability to the process, Mr Lyagin has invited 51 international "election observers" to come. Some are from predictable quarters – Russia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. But there are a number of European observers in Donetsk too, including the French far-right MEP Jean-Luc Schaffhauser.

Mr Lyagin's elections will return a "head of state" and "parliament", but few doubt the outcome. The frontrunner for the main job, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, took over the baton from Russia's man in town, Aleksandr Borodai, and is Moscow's clear preference. The candidates Mr Zakharchenko is supposedly running against – Yuri Sivokonenko and Aleksandr Kofman – freely admit that he will win. And they see no problem with this: they "are all friends anyway".

The parallel parliamentary elections to Donetsk will be competed by two parties – "Donetsk Republic" and "Free Donbass". The process of registration was a messy affair: four parties were ruled ineligible, and two weeks ago Pavel Gubarev, one of the initial architects of the DPR, was apparently shot a day before he was due to give an "important election announcement". His new party, "Novorossiya", was later denied registration. He had, however, planned for the eventuality, and had registered another party, "Free Donbass", which slipped in under the radar.

Vladislav Brig, an ally of Mr Gubarev is in charge of the DPR's political department. He confirmed that there have been several disagreements with the Zakharchenko administration. "We have no military faction backing us, and that brings risks," he said. The pistol he was carrying in a back holster seemed to show he wasn't joking.

The vote takes place at a time when the separatists are still fighting the forces of the Ukrainian government in the eastern parts of the country, including Donetsk, with the conflict having raged for months.

Divisions have been visible in the ranks of Russian-backed separatists from the early days of the conflict, but in the weeks following the ceasefire in September – an agreement that has been repeatedly violated – clear faultlines have emerged. Beyond the usual personality politics, the main argument seems to be between a more belligerent clan, wanting to expand borders at any cost, and those who prefer to focus on the region's economy first.

In neighbouring Luhansk, which is also holding elections today, the splits are, if anything, starker. For a long time ignored by Russia, and more affected by shelling, Luhansk lacks the basic infrastructure and the administrative sophistication of Donetsk. The current head of the "Luhansk People's Republic" (LPR), Igor Plotnitsky – another clear favourite for this election – holds far less sway over field commanders than Mr Zakharchenko in Donetsk. And several LPR leaders operate with complete autonomy.

Today's elections will probably resolve few of these tensions. So far from losing the upper hand in this conflict, Moscow might just be developing more options.

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