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Ethnic Russians in Donbass region defy West criticism, re-elect acting leaders

Election commission staff members count ballots at a polling station in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on November 11, 2018. (Photo by AFP)

People in eastern Ukraine’s ethnic Russian regions have re-elected their acting leaders in a vote viewed as illegal by the Kiev government and its Western allies.

Elections were held on Sunday to choose parliament members and new leaders in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, which are controlled by pro-Russia forces since breaking away from Ukraine in 2014.

Results released on Monday morning showed Donetsk region’s acting-leader, Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik, the acting Lugansk leader,  emerging victorious with 61 and 68 percent of the votes, respectively, with almost all ballots counted.

“Today we have proved to the world that we can not only fight, not only win on the battlefield but also build a state based on real democratic principles,” Pushilin told supporters at a concert gathering.

Election officials reported a high turnout despite calls by Kiev and its Western backers for the boycott of the elections.

More than 80 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in Donetsk, while turnout stood at 77 percent in the Lugansk region at the close of polls, they added.

Donetsk and Lugansk, which are collectively known as the Donbass, have been beset by conflict between the Western-backed Ukrainian military and pro-Russia forces.

International efforts to restore peace and stability to the region have largely failed, furthering the split between the two sides. So far, over 10,000 people have died in the armed conflict since 2014, according to the United Nations estimates.

The elections came after the killing of the Donetsk leader Alexander Zakharchenko in a bomb attack in August.

Although Kiev and its Western partners do not recognize the right of the Donbass region’s 3.7 million residents to hold elections, the process was monitored by observers from 22 countries, according to the organizers.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the elections as “illegal and illegitimate.”

“These so-called elections undermine the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine,” the pair said in a joint statement on Sunday.

Kiev’s Western backers believe that the elections would boost Russia's influence in the region.

Moscow and local Donbass authorities, however, reject the claim, with Russia saying the people in eastern Ukraine have the right to decide for themselves.

“People simply need to live, get on with their lives, and ensure order in the region under a blockade and permanent threats of the use of force by Ukrainian authorities,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, defending the elections.

She added that it was necessary to fill in the gap created by the assassination of Zakharchenko.

Kiev and its Western backers have accused Moscow of channeling troops and armaments across the border into eastern Ukraine.

Russia denies any military intervention, financial support or meddling in the region’s affairs.

Ties between Russia and the West hit a record low in 2014, after the Black Sea Crimea Peninsula also voted in a popular referendum to separate from Ukraine and rejoin the Russian Federation.

Led by the US, Western governments have imposed rounds of security and economic sanctions on Russia over what they designate as the illegal annexation of Crimea. Moscow has also responded in kind with its own retaliatory measures against the West.

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