DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — The Kremlin made it clear Monday that Moscow has no intention of immediately annexing two regions in eastern Ukraine after a weekend referendum there showed most voters allegedly backing sovereignty.
Ukraine’s central government and the West strongly criticized Sunday’s hastily arranged, unofficial ballot in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions- which together have 6.5 million people – as a sham and a violation of international law. They accuse Moscow of fomenting weeks of unrest in eastern Ukraine in a possible attempt to grab more land after annexing Crimea in March – 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.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office urged the Ukrainian government to engage in talks with representatives of eastern Ukraine that could be brokered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The cautious stance – which contrasted with Russia’s quick annexation of Crimea after a separatist vote there – appears to reflect Putin’s hope of negotiating a solution to what has become the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
“The practical implementation of the referendum results should proceed in a civilized way without any throwbacks to violence through a dialogue between representatives of Kiev, Donetsk and Luhansk,” the statement said.
The pro-Russia insurgents who organized Sunday’s vote claimed 89 percent of those who cast ballots 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, but Vasily Nikitin, a spokesman for the insurgents in Luhansk said the region will not vote in Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election.
The interim government in Kiev had been hoping that the presidential vote would unify the country behind a new, democratically chosen leadership. Ukraine’s crisis could grow even worse if regions start rejecting the presidential vote.
The insurgents said turnout topped 70 percent, but with no international election monitors in place, it was 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 the 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 risk attracting attention to themselves but there were no obvious signs of outright intimidation by pro-Russia forces who have captured government buildings across the east.
Surveys by polling companies have indicated that a significant majority of people in Ukraine reject movements to divide the country.
Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, whose country currently chairs the OSCE, met with Putin last week to propose a road map for settling the Ukrainian crisis.
“We have seen in Moscow that there is openness for a dialogue,” Burkhalter said Monday in Brussels.
He said the OSCE plan urges all sides to refrain from violence and calls for an immediate adoption of an amnesty law. It also envisages a comprehensive national dialogue focusing on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. Burkhalter emphasized that it would be up to Ukraine on how to set up the dialogue.
He said Ukraine has accepted a proposal to nominate Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger of Germany as OSCE co-moderator for talks to launch the dialogue.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who attended a meeting of the European Union foreign ministers in Brussels, told reporters that he considered the referendum “illegal.”
“We cannot, and must not, take it seriously,” he said.
The EU foreign ministers on Monday added 13 people and two enterprises to its visa ban and asset freeze list over Ukraine, according to two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the measure had yet to be officially announced.
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.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, criticized Ukrainian authorities for trying to thwart the balloting by using weapons against civilians. It noted the reported high turnout in the vote and voiced respect for its results.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow sees no need for another four-way meeting between Russia, the United States, the EU and Ukraine following their talks in Geneva last month, saying that the Ukrainian authorities should now focus holding a dialogue with the east.
He accused Washington and Kiev’s government of stonewalling the OSCE plan and warned that efforts to defuse Ukraine’s 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.
The insurgents in the east have seized government buildings and clashed with government troops and police over the past month. Dozens have been reported killed since Ukrainian forces began trying to retake some eastern cities.
Sunday’s voting appeared mostly peaceful but armed men put a stop to the voting and took control of the town hall in Krasnoarmeisk, then opened fire on a crowd outside. They identified themselves to the crowd as Ukrainian national guards but the Interior Ministry said they were not. Two deaths were reported.
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 Russian-speakers.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow. David Rising in Berlin, Raf Casert in Brussels and Mark Rachkevych in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report. AP photographer Manu Brabo contributed from Krasnoarmeisk.