A steady stream of voters turned out at some polling stations Sunday for snap elections intended to legitimize two self-declared new countries in eastern Ukraine, a showing that will aid the secessionist cause.
At polling stations in Donetsk, the provincial capital of one of the two regions holding referendums, all the ballots visible in the clear boxes had votes supporting local autonomy.
The turnout in the capital was no guarantee people in towns elsewhere would also show support for the separatists, and even in Donetsk many who favored Ukrainian unity said they would stay home rather than vote.
The United States and European nations say they have no intention of recognizing the ad hoc vote, no matter the results, calling it illegal and likely only to worsen the lethal violence in Ukraine’s east.
Ballots for the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk were created on copiers. In one city, voting booths consisting of red drapes stapled to wooden frames had been thrown together Saturday, and an election organizer in Donetsk said he was sure the vote would count because there was no rule for a minimum turnout.
Separatist groups in eastern Ukraine conducting the voting on Sunday said they were as unfazed by the monumental task ahead as they were by the international condemnation of elections that many outsiders said could not possibly be free and fair amid the chaos enveloping the region.
Despite their slapdash nature, the elections pose a risk of escalating the smoldering conflict in Ukraine by entrenching the political wings of pro-Russian militant groups, while putting the interim government in Kiev, the capital, in the awkward position of arguing against what organizers describe as a democratic votes.
In Kiev, Sergiy Pashinskiy, the acting chief of staff for Ukraine’s presidential administration, denounced the vote on Sunday.
“The so-called referendum in Donetsk and Lugansk regions is an attempt by the terrorists to cover up their crimes,” Mr. Pashinkskiy said. “In fact there is no referendum taking place,” Mr. Pashinkskiy said. “This is nothing more than an information campaign by terrorists.”
No referendum was taking place in two-thirds of the eastern regions, he said, and those leading the separatist balloting would be prosecuted.
“Officials of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions participating in this criminal act will be brought to justice in accordance with the laws of Ukraine,” Mr. Pashinkskiy said.
Roman Lyagin, the chairman of the central election committee of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic, had expressed the opposite view on Saturday. “The results will legitimize us before the world community,” Mr. Lyagin said at a news conference in Donetsk.
Mr. Lyagin said he had printed 3.1 million ballots that pose one question: “Do you support the act of self-rule for the People’s Republic of Donetsk?” He said polling here would take place at 1,527 sites, including hospitals and schools, that will be secured by police sympathetic to the cause and volunteers. Pro-Russian activists in the Luhansk region to the east said they had made similar arrangements for a vote.
But even in Donetsk, the wording had people baffled. Some interpret the question as a vote for more local autonomy, some for independence and still others as a step toward inviting annexation by Russia, following the example set in Crimea.