DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — The Kremlin made it clear Monday that it has no intention to try to annex Ukraine’s eastern provinces after the controversial referendums where the majority of voters allegedly said they backed sovereignty for their regions.
In a statement, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office urged the Ukrainian government to engage in talks with representatives of the eastern part of the country following Sunday’s vote. The cautious stance, which contrasted with Russia’s quick annexation of Crimea in March, appears to reflect Putin’s hope to negotiate a solution to what has become the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
The Kremlin also urged the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to help broker talks between the central government in Kiev and representatives of the east.
Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, whose country currently chairs the OSCE, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week to propose a road map for settling the Ukrainian crisis. Burkhalter said in a statement Monday that Ukraine has accepted a proposal to nominate Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger as OSCE co-moderator for round-tables intended to launch a national dialogue in Ukraine.
The pro-Russian insurgents who organized the vote claimed 89 percent of those who cast ballots Sunday in the Donetsk region and about 96 percent of those who turned out in the neighboring Luhansk region voted for sovereignty. It remained unclear whether the vote could lead to their secession.
The insurgents said turnout topped 70 percent, but with no international election monitors in place, it was all but impossible to confirm such claims. Turnout was brisk at some polling stations visited by AP journalists. At one polling station at a school in Donetsk, all voting slips that could be seen in the transparent ballot boxes showed that self-rule had been selected.
Most opponents of sovereignty likely stayed away from the polls rather than risking attracting attention to themselves. Surveys by polling companies have indicated that a significant majority of people in Ukraine reject movements to break away parts of the country.
There were no immediate signs of any outright intimidation by pro-Russian forces Sunday, and insurgents near the polls were not wearing their usual balaclavas.
Ukraine’s central government and the West have condemned the balloting as a sham and a violation of international law, and accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest in a possible attempt to grab more land weeks after the annexation of Crimea — accusations that Russia has denied.
“The farce, which terrorists call the referendum, will have no legal consequences except the criminal responsibility for its organizers,” Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said in a statement Monday.
Arriving in Brussels for a meeting with his EU counterparts Monday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters that he considered the referendum “illegal.”
“We cannot, and must not, take it seriously,” he said.
The U.S. and the EU, which have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s entourage after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, have warned they could target entire sectors of the Russian economy if Moscow tries to derail Ukraine’s May 25 presidential vote.
On Monday, EU foreign ministers considered adding more people to its Ukraine sanctions list, but are not expected to go beyond visa bans and asset freezes before Ukraine’s presidential vote.
In its statement, the Kremlin criticized the Ukrainian authorities for trying to thwart the balloting by using weapons against civilians. It pointed at a “high turnout” in the vote and voiced respect for its results.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Moscow sees no need for another four-way meeting between Russia, the United States, the European Union and Ukraine following their talks in Geneva last month, saying that the Ukrainian authorities should now focus on dialogue with the east.
He accused Washington and Kiev’s government of stonewalling the OSCE road map and warned that efforts to defuse the crisis wouldn’t be successful without “engaging opponents of the regime in a direct dialogue.”
A few days before the vote, Putin had urged the organizers to postpone the balloting in an apparent attempt to distance himself from the insurgents and keep his hands free for bargaining with the West.
His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted by the Kommersant daily Monday as saying that it was difficult for people in the east to heed Putin’s call because of fighting in the region.
The insurgents in the east have seized government buildings and clashed with government troops and police over the past month. More than 30 people have been reported killed since Ukrainian forces began trying to retake some eastern cities from the insurgents.
Sunday’s voting in the two regions with a combined population of 6.5 million appeared mostly peaceful, but armed men opened fire on a crowd outside the town hall in Krasnoarmeisk. The men identified themselves to a crowd as Ukrainian national guards but the Interior Ministry has denied they were part of the national guard.
An Associated Press photographer who witnessed the shooting saw two people lay motionless on the ground. The Interfax news agency later reported that one man died on the spot and another later died of wounds at a hospital.
The violence in Krasnoarmeisk, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) west from the regional capital, Donetsk, came hours after armed men put a stop to the voting and took control of the town hall. In the evening, more armed men arrived in a van, a scuffle broke out with people gathered around the building and the men fired the shots.
Turchynov and Ukraine’s caretaker government came to power in February following the ouster of Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych after months of protests in Kiev. Moscow and many in Ukraine’s east have accused the new government of intending to trample the rights of eastern Ukraine’s Russian-speakers.