DONETSK, Ukraine, May 8 (UPI) -- Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine said Thursday a weekend referendum on autonomy will go on, contrary to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recommendation Wednesday that it be postponed.
“The referendum will be held May 11,” said Miroslav Rudenko to the state-controlled news service Interfax. Rudenko is co-chairman of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the separatists’ political office.
Putin publicly asked the separatists to hold off on the referendum as he announced withdrawals of Russian troops from the Ukraine border Wednesday. Putin's conciliatory suggestion was designed to provide an opening for dialogue on potential political arrangements for eastern Ukraine. The area, which abuts Russia, seeks greater autonomy and is historically linked to Russia.
Putin repeated his request Thursday in Moscow, noting the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is prepared to mediate a settlement.
“Concrete steps have been planned to augment efforts by the O.S.C.E. to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine, primarily through arranging a direct, equitable dialogue between present Ukrainian authorities and representatives of southeastern regions of Ukraine,” Putin said in a televised address from the Kremlin.
Putin has insisted Moscow is not in control of separatist motives or actions in Ukraine, a point the Ukrainian government -- and much of world opinion -- continues to dispute. Officials in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev have noted a referendum of the sort envisioned for this weekend is illegal under the Ukrainian constitution, and they have questioned whether such a vote could be conducted fairly.
The swift refusal of the separatists to cancel the referendum is likely to increase tensions between the interim government in Kiev and the rebels, who have seized government buildings in Donetsk and other eastern Ukrainian cities.