(USA Today) DONETSK, Ukraine — Residents of two regions of eastern Ukraine cast votes in independence referendums Sunday amid controversy over the votes' legitimacy amid a pro-Russian insurgency.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. local time and were due to close at 10 p.m. Referendum organizers said they expected a high turnout, even though the security situation remained unstable. There were reports of sporadic clashes, though the region was mostly calm as the voting got under way.
The ballots seek approval for declaring so-called sovereign people's republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where rebels have seized government buildings and clashed with police and Ukrainian troops over the past month.
As the vote approached, many living in this eastern region of the country said they wouldn't be a part of it.
"There are two things you can't choose: your parents and your homeland," said Andrey Anatolyvitch Shulga, 37, a businessman working in the auto industry who described the referendum as illegitimate. "In my family, I have Polish people and Russian people, but it doesn't mean I want to be a part of Poland or Russia."
Shulga reflects a common sentiment in a part of the country in which pro-Russian outbursts have fueled violence and a building unease. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found 70% of people living in eastern Ukraine did not want to secede.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, warned against the vote, saying supporters of secession "don't understand that this would be a complete destruction of the economy, social programs and general life for the majority of the population."
"This is a step into the abyss for the regions," he said in comments posted on the presidential website Saturday.
Turchynov took office in February when protesters ousted President Viktor Yanukovich after more than two months of demonstrations in the capital of Kiev. Even now, hundreds of activists remain camped out in tents in the city's central square, and they aren't planning to leave anytime soon.
"This is my home. My brothers, my family live here," said Vitaly Panchuk, 26, who was injured by a grenade during the height of the winter demonstrations.
The protests — dubbed "Euromaidan" for the name of Kiev's central square and for the pro-European sentiment of the demonstrators — erupted in December after Yanukovich backed out of an agreement for closer integration with Europe, instead opting for closer ties with Russia.
The rallies sparked clashes with police in January and February, killing about 100 people. In late February, Yanukovich fled to Russia, and Turchynov took over. But not all the protesters are happy with that change.
"We're going to be here until our government starts working the way they're supposed to," Panchuk said. "The current authorities are not able to achieve what we expected of them. We're waiting for the presidential elections (on May 25), and then we'll see what they do next."
The encampment — with military tents, field kitchens, posters and flowers commemorating those who died in the protests — serves as a reminder of the upheaval as well as the continuing turmoil in Ukraine.
Sunday's referendum follows a March vote in Crimea that opened the door for Russia to annex the peninsula. Since then, Russia has threatened Ukraine, calling for more autonomy for the eastern regions that house a large Russian-speaking population. Pro-Russia militiamen have taken over government buildings in Donetsk, proclaiming independence as Ukrainian authorities crack down on separatism there.
Walking down the street outside a polling station, Tamara, who wouldn't give her last name for fear of reprisal, said she was in favor of joining Russia.
"Politically it won't get worse; economically it's better in Russia," she said. "In my heart I feel Russia would be a better choice."
However, Alexander Vladimitch, 33, an office manager from the town of Luhansk, is wary of the deteriorating security situation in Donetsk following the takeover by the anti-Kiev separatists and described the insurgents as frightened people "who sold their country for 30 pieces of silver."
"We were brought up as Ukrainians and we have a Ukrainian mentality," he said. "We can see Russia is an aggressor right now. The people that are supporting the Donetsk republic are burning Ukrainian flags."
While Kiev has seen only a few pro-Russian demonstrations, Panchuk and his friends fear an attack from Russia. They also believe Ukraine's regular army isn't doing enough to take control of regions overrun by pro-Russian militiamen.
"Why aren't they doing anything in (east Ukraine)? Why are the police giving up? Is someone paying them?" said Leonid Bibik, who was wounded during clashes in February.
As the days pass, even the people manning the Maidan camp in Kiev are wearing out their welcome.
Yuri Sukhin, who runs a mobile phone repair shop in the underpass beneath the Maidan, said he isn't impressed with the new government, but the people camping out aren't helping, either.
"There are a lot of guys who come here and expect service for free because they were on the barricades," he said. "I was on the barricades, too. I got cold water poured on me (by police) in the cold during the demonstrations. But I need to earn money for my family."