MOSCOW – Russia raised the stakes in the Ukraine crisis on Monday by saying it respected what rebels claimed was a resounding vote in favour of self-rule in the east of the country.
But the Kremlin also called for dialogue between authorities in Kiev and rebel leaders, as European Union ministers prepared to meet in Brussels to consider toughening sanctions on Russia.
“Moscow respects the expression of the people’s will in Donetsk and Lugansk,” the Kremlin said in a statement, calling for “the results to be implemented in a civilized manner, without any repeat of violence, through dialogue between representatives of Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk.”
Denounced by the central government in Kiev and the West as “a farce,” the contentious vote was hastily organised and held with no international observers.
It deepened a crisis that has brought Russia’s relations with the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.
Separatist officials in Donetsk province said 89 percent of voters backed breaking away from Ukraine in Sunday’s vote.
Roughly similar results were expected later Monday from Lugansk, the other separatist province that voted.
The United States and other Western countries have said they will not recognise the outcome of the vote, which comes some two months after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
Isolated violence flared during voting in some parts of eastern Ukraine, where troops have been waging an offensive against well-armed rebels in control of several towns.
A group of pro-Kiev armed men were seen firing into a crowd of pro-Russian activists.
According to a freelance photographer working for AFP, two people were seen lying motionless on the ground but it was not clear if they were dead.
On Monday, sporadic explosions and gunfire could be heard in the flash point town of Slavyansk, as Ukraine’s military pressed its siege of the rebel-held town.
The head of the insurgents’ self-styled electoral commission in Donetsk, Roman Lyagin, said turnout was 75 percent in Sunday’s vote.
There was no way to independently verify the vote results.
The rebels prevented foreign media from observing ballot counting and voting took place with no neutral monitors, incomplete electoral rolls, and a haphazard registration procedure that did nothing to prevent multiple voting.
The two industrial regions are home to 7 million people, out of Ukraine’s total population of 46 million.
• ‘Nothing but propaganda’-
“The farce that terrorist separatists call a referendum is nothing more than propaganda to cover up murders, kidnappings, violence and other serious crimes,” Ukraine’s interim president Oleksandr Turchynov told parliament.
He however repeated his desire to “continue dialogue with those in the east of Ukraine who have no blood on their hands and who are ready to defend their goals in a legitimate way.”
The crisis has raised fears of a violent break-up of Ukraine and the possibility of a civil war on Europe’s eastern edge.
An agreement between Moscow, Kiev, Washington and the EU in Geneva last month did little to ease tensions and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday there was no point in further discussions without the separatists.
“Holding another four-way meeting makes little sense,” Lavrov said. “We do not want to repeat what has already taken place… but to move on to talks between Kiev and its opponents in the eastern regions of Ukraine.”
Kiev and Western leaders have accused Moscow of backing the rebels and on Monday EU foreign ministers were to gather in Brussels for fresh talks on the crisis.
On the table will be the possibility of extending European sanctions after the EU imposed asset freezes and visa bans on 48 Russians and Ukrainians for violating or threatening Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
The ministers may decide to expand the criteria for targeting individuals with sanctions and could add companies to the list as well.
There are serious divisions within the 28-nation bloc over sanctions, especially after Russian President Vladimir Putin made conciliatory remarks last week by calling for the independence votes to be delayed.
For the first time in the months-long crisis, EU Council president Herman Van Rompuy, who represents the bloc’s 28 leaders, will fly to Kiev on Monday to meet the interim government.
Talks will also take place between EU, Russian and Ukrainian officials on Monday in Brussels on how to ensure gas supplies to Ukraine after Russia, its main supplier, sharply increased prices and demanded the payment of billions in outstanding bills.
The EU, which receives nearly 15 percent of the Russian gas it consumes through Ukraine, is deeply concerned about possible cuts in supplies to the country.
Western officials had on Sunday denounced the referendums, with the EU declaring the votes “illegal” and French President Francois Hollande calling them “null and void.”
• People’s government-
The rebel leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, told AFP the results would “create the first people’s government.”
“This is what we fought for, for the majority to decide the destiny of the region and we achieved that goal,” he said.
Olga Sirienko, a Donetsk resident, said that even if the results are not recognised internationally, local people wanted to show that “they don’t approve of the junta in Kiev.”
“We’ll be like Crimea used to be, an autonomous republic,” she predicted.
Anti-Kiev sentiment was riding high in the regions after a fierce firefight between troops and rebels that killed up to 21 people on Friday, according to Ukrainian officials.
Coupled with deadly clashes and an inferno in Odessa a week earlier that killed at least 42 people, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians who had been wavering decided to vote against the government.