As Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region voted for autonomy from Kiev on Sunday, our reporter Gulliver Cragg followed a pro-Ukraine activist who was determined to highlight voter fraud - something which proved to be alarmingly easy.
"I just voted three times!" Yevhen Semekhin was almost beside himself with excitement. "And I'm not stopping!"
This pro-Ukrainian unity activist, leader of the Donetsk regional branch of Democratic Alliance, a small political party founded in 2011, is determined to highlight fraud in the regional poll. But he knows he is in danger. "We know who you are and where you live," heavies at the first polling station told him, he says, when he tried to film himself in the act.
That was at 9:30am on Sunday morning in Makiivka, a city of some 350,000, just outside Donetsk. At 11:00am and then again at 11:10, he did it again, this time filming himself on a phone camera.
Ukraine's Donetsk region votes for autonomy
People in Makiivka are notoriously camera-shy even at the best of times. Those manning the Donetsk People's Republic's polling stations here had especially good reason to be wary: even without delving any deeper into the numerous irregularities reported on Sunday, images of open-plan voting, with no booths, would make a mockery of claims the vote is secret and respects international norms.
We set off in a battered old Lada to try and repeat the feat in the nearby town of Yasinuvata. Yevhen had tied an orange and black ribbon of St George, which Ukraine's pro-Russians have adopted as an "anti-fascist" emblem, to the rear-view mirror. "We're disguised as separatists!" he exclaimed, "Down with fascism!" Whenever he got out of the car he tied the ribbon to his arm instead. It was at once a serious precaution and a source of much mirth.
Determined to highlight election fraud: pro-Ukraine activist Yevhen Semekhin
Yevhen's almost hysterical mockery belies an underlying sense of hopelessness. Large numbers of police officers have more or less openly sided with the separatists in recent weeks. Yevhen believes it is only a matter of time until they do so officially. At one polling station in Makiivka a security guard told us proudly that a policeman in uniform just voted... in a referendum he knows is illegal.
In Yasinuvata, though, things were different. The polling station here - a school, with anthemic Soviet music blaring from a sound system outside – had proper booths. Staff seemed to be checking and counter-checking everyone's documents. The chair was only too happy to let us film and to explain the safeguards put in place against multiple voting. She was almost tearful as she described the crowds who came to vote earlier in the day. Yevhen decided not to try his luck here.
Clearly large numbers of Eastern Ukrainians have been convinced by Russian propaganda, which asserts that the new, pro-Western government in Kiev is a fascist junta. We did not meet anyone in Yasinuvata who had voted against the act of "self-reliance" of the Donetsk People's Republic. Opinion polls consistently show that a majority of people in this region do not support the separatists. But after weeks of violence and threats against pro-Ukrainian activists, if it is a majority it is a silent, cowed one.
At the next place where Yevhen tried to vote, Zemlyanky, we got a sense of the kind of intimidation that can be felt in this region. Seeing my camera, eight youngish men, who did not appear to be entirely sober, blocked our access to the building. They denied it was even a polling station at all: "it's a boxing club", they said, "you wanna fight?" It would take some nerve to vote "no" with them around.
We beat a retreat and, noticing on the way back that we were being followed, Yevhen decided three "no" votes was enough for one referendum. He wasn't the only one making the point. Reports of multiple voting were coming in from across Donetsk and Luhansk regions. People were voting miles from their homes - frequently with no-one checking whether they were even from the region at all. With no international observers and the organisers firmly in the "yes" camp, there is scarcely any chance of an independent evaluation of the results.
Besides, Yevhen had a train to Kiev to catch, for a work assignment. "I'm afraid," he said, "that when I come back in two weeks I will not be returning to Donetsk, Ukraine, but to the Donetsk People's Republic".
Date created : 2014-05-12