(Reuters) – Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine named a leader of their breakaway republic on Monday after a weekend election which was denounced by Kiev and the West and further deepened a standoff with Russia over the future of the former Soviet state.
Organizers of the vote said that Alexander Zakharchenko, a 38-year-old former mining electrician, had easily won election as head of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”, an entity proclaimed by armed rebels in the days after they seized key buildings in cities of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east last April.
The rogue vote, which Kiev says Russia encouraged, could create a new “frozen conflict” in post-Soviet Europe and further threaten the territorial unity of Ukraine, which lost control of its Crimean peninsula in March when it was annexed by Russia.
Kiev and the West will now be looking to see if Russian President Vladimir Putin will formally recognize the validity of the vote, despite their entreaties to him not to do so.
A Russian deputy foreign minister, in an initial reaction, made no mention of formal recognition but said the newly elected leadership in eastern Ukraine had been given a mandate to negotiate with Kiev.
Up to now, Kiev’s leaders have refused to hold direct talks with the separatists, whom they refer to as “terrorists” and “bandits”.
If Moscow were to recognize the vote, it would narrow options too for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
He has ruled out trying to take back the region by force after big battlefield losses in August. But after a parliamentary election on Oct. 26, he is now supported by a pro-Western power structure, determined to stop the break-up of Ukraine, and he could come under pressure to take a firmer line.