May 11, 2014 / 9:27 PM / 4 years ago

Voters in rebel stronghold turns their backs on Ukraine

SLAVIASNK (Reuters) - With the Ukrainian army at its gates and nearly every road in the center blocked by makeshift barricades, the 100 percent turnout forecast by Slaviansk’s rebel mayor for the referendum on self-rule was always going to be optimistic.

But a steady trickle of people threaded their way past the roadblocks made from rusty machinery and tree trunks to cast their vote at one of the town’s 56 polling stations, complete with curtained voting booths and regulation ballot boxes.

While voter numbers dwindled in the afternoon, those who did turn up to the schools, sports halls and cultural centers were almost unanimous in their support for the newly declared Donetsk People’s Republic, free of the pro-Western leadership in Kiev.

Shop assistant Katya Yutkalo, 28, dashed into School Number 5 in Sloviansk just before the doors closed. “I ran from work to make it in time, this is our future,” she said.

“The republic will mean a better life for us all...I don’t know how exactly, but it means Russia will help us too.”

After polls closed, referendum volunteers wrapped the electoral list and leftover ballot papers in brown paper and sticky tape, before emptying the papers from the ballot bins onto the table - almost all ticked ‘Yes’.

Sitting in front of the lacy curtains and dusty pot-plants common to many post-Soviet institutions, the eleven vote-counters chatted excitedly as they sorted though the papers, which asked voters if they supported Donetsk’s act of self rule.

“Yes, yes, yes, yes…’, they chanted in unison as the first ballots were counted.

The fate of the few papers where the voter’s choice was unclear, where the writing was too faint or contradictory marks had been placed in both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ boxes, was put to communal vote. Many ended up in the ‘Yes’ pile.

The final count showed that of the 1,345 votes cast, only 32 did not want a split from Ukraine, while 7 ballots were spoiled.

The group sat stony-faced as the ‘No’ votes were counted for a second time. “There are still fascists among us,” one volunteer whispered to her neighbor.

Some of those inclined to vote “No” said they preferred to steer clear of the referendum altogether.

Zhenya, 32, a foreman whose factory has closed its gates since the start of the standoff with Kiev, said he had no plans to participate.

“I don’t care about this side and that side. The most important thing is for us to stop shooting each other. It’s ridiculous,” he said, declining to give his surname because it would be “dangerous” if acquaintances found out he opposed the vote.

The dominant sentiment in Slaviansk late on Sunday mirrored the mood in School Number 5.

“We’ve won,” said 54-year-old housewife Natasha Smoller, sitting with a group of friends at a civilian roadblock in the center of town.

“So long as we have nothing more to do with Ukraine, we’ll be better off...Obviously the immediate future is going to be tough, but it can’t be any worse than what we’ve just been through.”

Editing by Philippa Fletcher

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