Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine are holding elections considered by Kyiv and the West “illegal” and a “mockery”
Kyiv and its international backers say the November 11 polls in the areas controlled by the separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions will further hamper efforts to end a conflict that has killed more than 10,300 people since April 2014.
However, Moscow disputes that the elections to choose the separatists heads in Donetsk and Luhansk and members of the local legislatures violate the Minsk agreements aimed at putting an end to the violence.
The acting head of the separatists in the Donetsk region, 37-year-old Denis Pushilin, is expected to win polls there. He has worked a series of jobs including casino croupier and pushing financial products for MMM, a successor to the infamous Russian Ponzi scheme that swindled tens of thousands of people after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The previous separatist leader in Donetsk, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, died in an explosion in August. Moscow pointed the finger at Ukraine, while Kyiv blamed internal fighting between the separatists and “their Russian sponsors."
In the neighboring Luhansk region, the acting head of the separatists, Leonid Pasechnik, is also expected to sail to victory. Pasechnik, 48, is a former regional chief of the Ukrainian Security Service.
Both Pushilin and Pasechnik have promised to seek tighter ties with Moscow.
The separatists said 408 and 316 polling stations had opened in Donetsk and Luhansk, respectively, with the first results expected on November 12.
The AFP news agency reported that voting was being held amid tightened security, with gun-toting, camouflage-clad soldiers deployed to ensure order.
Posters around the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, the main city in the region of the same name, called on people to vote "with Russia in your heart," according to AFP.
The last separatist elections were held in 2014 despite protests from Kyiv and the West, which didn’t recognize their results.