DONETSK Ukraine (Reuters) - Pro-Russian separatists will vote to set up a breakaway regional leadership in eastern Ukraine on Sunday aiming to take their war-torn region closer to Russia and defying Kiev and the West as the big guns still boom across the territory.
The United States and European Union have denounced as illegitimate the vote which is sure too to stoke tensions further between the West and Russia.
The separatists’ poll is the latest twist in a geo-political face-off between Russia and the West over Ukraine going back to the overthrow of a Moscow-backed president in February and the installation of a Ukrainian leadership that seeks integration with mainstream Europe.
In Donetsk, the separatists’ political and military stronghold, election workers at a polling station in an elementary school pasted red, black and blue rebel flags over Ukrainian state symbols on ballot boxes ahead of the vote.
“Voters lists were taken out by Ukrainian authorities, so we have had some difficulties, but we’re trying to hold a legitimate vote for the people of Donetsk,” said Natalia Chaban, an election official at a local school.
The big industrial city, which had a peace time population of nearly one million, experienced some of its heaviest mortar and artillery shelling of the last few weeks just hours before voting was due to begin. Ukraine said six of its servicemen had been killed in the last 24 hours.
Kiev says the vote violates the Minsk protocol that underpins a ceasefire between the rebels and Ukrainian troops. This, although sporadically broken, has allowed a semblance of normality to return to Donetsk following violence that has killed more than 3,700 people.
Kiev’s pro-European government says the Minsk agreements, signed by rebel leaders and envoys from Kiev, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), forsee elections held under Ukrainian law.
These would appoint purely local officials with whom Kiev would agree new local powers to provide the regions with greater say in their own affairs.
The rebels’ plan to elect leaders and institutions in a breakaway territory in the regions of Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk, one week after a Ukrainian parliamentary election, violates that agreement, Kiev says.
The vote is certain to further strain ties between the West and Russia, already under several rounds of European and U.S. sanctions for its role in eastern Ukraine, after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would recognise the vote.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday the election was illegitimate and would not be recognised by Europe.
“We all understand that the West is fighting with Russia, but they’ve decided to do it in Ukraine. As for us, we’re just trying to survive,” said Vitaly, 34, a businessman in Donetsk.
Rebels say the election will legitimise the separatist leadership and consolidate power, though many Donetsk residents say the vote will change nothing and the outcome is already a foregone conclusion.
Enthusiasm for the rebel cause, which was at its peak in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east following the ouster of Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich, waned after violence closed banks and many stores, forcing people out of work.
“As for the elections tomorrow, I don’t plan to vote. No one I know plans to either. There is no point,” said Natasha, without giving her last name, outside a central Donetsk jewelry store, whose windows have been boarded up for months.
Current rebel prime minister Alexander Zakharchenko, a former mining electrician whose face is plastered on campaign advertisements across Donetsk, is almost certain to win the vote for the leadership of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Zakharchenko, 38, has pulled colourful campaign stunts comparing the industrial region’s coal deposits to the oil reserves in the United Arab Emirates and promising pensioners a monthly stipend that will allow them to go on safari in Australia.
His opponents, two lesser known separatist figures, have rarely, if ever, appeared in public.
At a Donetsk university, students gathered on Saturday to the tune of Russian composer Pyotr Chaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” playing over loudspeakers until Zakharchenko arrived, dressed in his camouflage military gear.
“We need a strong republic,” he told the hundreds of students assembled in the auditorium of the Donetsk National Technical University, “And your weapons are your textbooks.”
The rebel vote, which has no voting lists, will allow internet voting, which has already started, and mobile polling stations, will also select a People’s Council, a lawmaking body.
Walking her two months old-granddaughter, Valentina Borisova, 52, said she planned on voting in the election to legitimise the current rebel leadership and start building a future for the region.
“We have to hope for the best and work towards creating our own little country,” said Borisova, a worker at a local steel factory.
“Otherwise at our factory we barely have work, and that only happens when Russia delivers raw materials,” she said.
Reporting by Thomas Grove; editing by Richard Balmforth and Ralph Boulton