MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday asked pro-Kremlin separatists in southeastern Ukraine to postpone a series of disputed referendums planned for this weekend on declaring greater autonomy or outright independence from Kiev.
"We ask the representatives of the southeast to postpone the referendums planned for May 11 in order to create the conditions necessary for dialogue," Putin said after a Kremlin meeting with Swiss president and current OSCE chief Didier Burkhalter.
Pro-Russian militants who have seized government buildings in eastern regions such as Donetsk and Lugansk had announced plans to stage polls on secession from Kiev following the protest-led ouster in February of a Kremlin-backed regime.
The votes have been denounced as illegal by both Kiev and its allies in Washington and the European Union.
Ukraine plans separately to stage snap presidential elections on May 25 that Russia had denounced as "absurd" because of the ongoing military standoff between separatists and Kiev forces.
But Putin appeared to soften his approach to the national election by calling it a tentative step in the right direction.
"I would like to stress that the presidential elections planned in Kiev, while they are a move in the right direction, will not decide anything if all the citizens of Ukraine fail to understand how their rights are protected after the elections are held," Putin said.
Ethnic Russians who make up a large part of the population in the southeastern half of the ex-Soviet nation of 46 million had expressed fears about losing their language and other rights under a new pro-Western government that is likely to emerge after the May 25 vote.