DONETSK, Ukraine — A pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine decided today to go ahead with a referendum on autonomy despite a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to delay the vote.
The head of the elections commission of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, said the decision was unanimous to go ahead with Sunday’s vote as planned.
Putin on Wednesday had urged them to delay the referendum, which many fear could be a flashpoint for further violence between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russia militants who have seized government buildings in about a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine.
Pushilin said the suggestion to postpone the vote “came from a person who indeed cares for the people of the southeast” of Ukraine. “But we are the bullhorn of the people,” he said.
The organizers have said the referendum was on whether to give the eastern regions more autonomy within Ukraine, but they have left open the possibility of using it to seek independence or annexation by Russia.
Putin’s comments had appeared to be an effort to step back from confrontation with the West over Ukraine. He also declared that Russia has pulled its troops away from the Ukrainian border, although NATO and Washington said they saw no signs of this.
Putin also spoke more positively about the Ukrainian interim government’s plan to hold a presidential election on May 25, calling it a “step in the right direction,” but reiterated Russia’s long-standing contention that it should be preceded by constitutional reforms.
His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, added today that the election could only be considered legitimate if Ukraine stops its “punitive operations” in the east and begins a national dialogue on resolving the crisis, the Interfax news agency reported.