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Voters in Eastern Ukraine cast ballots in contested referendum

May 11, 2014 at 5:32 PM EDT
Early indications are that voters in Eastern Ukraine have overwhelmingly approved a measure that could potentially lead to their secession from the country. For the latest, Philip Shishkin of the Wall Street Journal joins Hari Sreenivasan from Donetsk via Skype.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For the latest from Eastern Ukraine, we are joined now via Skype by Philip Shishkin. He is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and joins us now from Donetsk.

So why does today’s vote matter in the grand scheme of things?

PHILIP SHISHKIN: Well, it matters because Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine are about to declare de facto independence not for one, but for two provinces bordering Russia here. And they need this vote to give their efforts a veneer of legitimacy. That’s why those pictures you see of some people heading to the polls, that’s very important.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So when you spoke to people at the polls today, was this a vote for independence and to join Russia or was this more frustration against Kiev?

PHILIP SHISHKIN: It’s a combination of both. If you look at opinion polls, the ones that were conducted independently by professionals, there’s very, very low support for any sort of independence or succession from Ukraine here. But interestingly those same polls also show, as you said, great frustration with the interim government in Kiev. So the vote today, the people who did go to the polls, and pretty much everyone who went to the polls, would vote yes to the question of state sovereignty. They were voting against Kiev as much as they were voting for any sort of independence.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So we’ve already heard from the Western powers, the Ukrainian government, who finds this entire exercise and this vote illegitimate, has there been any response from Russia today?

PHILIP SHISHKIN: I have not seen any response yet. It’s interesting because this referendum is actually being conducted for the audience of one or maybe more than one. But the key audience for this referendum is not in the West it’s in the Kremlin.

The people who call themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic, they are hoping, their long-term game is perhaps to have a Crimea-style annexation by Russia. Because they realized that The Donetsk People’s Republic as an independent entity has no economic future.

We haven’t heard any public support from Moscow, from Russian leaders for any sort of annexation, so it remains to be seen if whether the Donetsk People’s Republic follows the breakaway statehoods in Georgia and Moldova into this sort of international economic limbo or whether some sort of Crimea-style merger with Russia is in the works. I don’t think people have actually decided what to do here or in Moscow for that matter.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Philip Shiskin, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, joining us via Skype from Donetsk, thanks so much.

PHILIP SHISHKIN: My pleasure, thanks for having me.