East Ukraine gears up for rebel referendum despite Kiev rejection

Members of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic commission prepare a polling station in Donetsk, Ukraine on May 8, 2014. Sitting around a horseshoe table, half a dozen bouffant-haired ladies work away with scissors and glue on piles of freshly
Members of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic commission prepare a polling station in Donetsk, Ukraine on May 8, 2014. Sitting around a horseshoe table, half a dozen bouffant-haired ladies work away with scissors and glue on piles of freshly printed fliers promoting Sunday's planned separatist referendum in east Ukraine's Donetsk region. -- PHOTO: EPA

DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) - Sitting around a horseshoe table, half a dozen bouffant-haired ladies work away with scissors and glue on piles of freshly printed fliers promoting Sunday's planned separatist referendum in east Ukraine's Donetsk region.

"We are volunteers and patriots - we are tired of living under the threat of these fascists," said pensioner Galina Gryukanova, waving a pair of scissors.

"We'll work day and night to make sure that the referendum happens and the people's voice can be heard."

Despite rejection from Kiev and even an appeal from Russian president Vladimir Putin for the vote to be postponed, preparations have ploughed on for the vote after the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic said the plebiscite would happen.

Amid an ongoing military operation by the Ukrainian army to oust rebels in the region that has seen pitched battles that have left dozens dead, Sunday's referendum asks people if the industrial region should become independent from Kiev and is seen as a potential stepping stone by some towards joining Russia.

A similar vote is also set to be held in the neighbouring Lugansk region.

The determination to hold the vote dashed hopes of an easing in the crisis despite Putin's surprise call to the rebels to postpone their referendums.

But in spite of the earnest preparations, a vote under the auspices of the masked gunmen who have seized a series of towns across the east will struggle seriously for legitimacy - and risks turning into a farce.

There are deep doubts that the rebels are capable of arranging a balnt to stay in a united country, while only 18 per cent back secession. Two in three respondents in the east, however, are unhappy with the Western-backed government in Kiev.

On the streets of Donetsk opinions about the planned referendum are mixed.

Most people expressed either support or indifference to the ballot.

Almost no one said openly that they intend to vote "nlot for a million voters. And with just a few days to go to polling day, the organisation has appeared amateurish and even chaotic.

In the lobby of the voting commission office in Donetsk - barricaded behind tyres and barbed wire - piles of cardboard boxes crudely sealed up with adhesive tape stood filled with ballots. A hand-written note on them signified which town they were destined for.

"Don't touch," it said.

Rebel officials though have pledged that the referendum is on track and will be legitimate.

"The result will be legitimate - it will be the true expression of what the people from this land think," said Roman Lyagin, a representative of the vote commission.

The whole vote has cost just some US$2,000 (S$2,500), all of it on printer ink and paper to produce the ballots and petrol to deliver them, he said.

A total 15,000 volunteers will help run the ballot, Lyagin claimed, and over three million people in Donetsk alone were eligible to vote.

A poll released on Thursday by the Pew Research Centre in the United States though, suggested that 70 per cent of Ukrainians in the east wao".

"Some people don't care and many people are scared of separating from Kiev but I'm going to go and vote for independence," said flower seller Anna Ivanova.

"To me the referendum is our only hope - things can't get worse than they are now," Ivanova said.

"Personally, I'm in favour of joining Russia." Others though seemed less than enthused by the vote.

"I haven't really thought about whether I'll vote or not," said security guard Viktor.

"I'll probably just stay at home and relax on Sunday." Whatever the outcome, Kiev has already made it clear that it views the vote as illegitimate and will not pay any attention to the result.

Andriy Parubiy, the secretary of Ukraine's national security and defence council, has described the poll as "political fraud and trickery" and pledged to press on with the military operation against the rebels.

As for Moscow's reaction, following Putin's call for the rebels to postpone the vote, the questions being asked are whether the Kremlin has lost influence or withdrawn its backing for the rebels - and whether it will still throw its weight behind the vote's outcome.

"There is some change of stance in (Putin's) words, but can we really talk of a serious change in policy?" said Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"Words can be interpreted very widely... the actions that follow words are more important."