An armed pro-Russian fighter takes position Wednesday in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk. Pro-Russian militia members are finding less support than they anticipated for a referendum on secession that is being run by militants who seized government buildings and created a crisis that is pitting Russia against the West. (Vasily Maximov / AFP)
DONETSK, UKRAINE — Pro-Russian militia members are finding less support than they anticipated for a referendum on secession that is being run by militants who seized government buildings and created a crisis that is pitting Russia against the West.
"Only a few local government officials are supporting us in holding this referendum," said Boris Litvinov, a self-styled election official in the People's Republic of Donetsk.
"Mostly it's done on the enthusiasm of the people. Sometimes we have to -- not use harsh measures, no -- but we have to be very insistent."
On April 6, pro-Russian gunmen seized the building Litvinov was now standing outside of, proclaimed an independent republic, and scheduled a referendum for May 11 demanding autonomy and asking whether this eastern province should be subsumed by Russia as was done to Crimea in March.
Since then, the regional council building has become a headquarters of sorts for the militia -- but one where elevators don't work, and reinforcements are made up of barricades of tires, barbed wire, tents and trash.
Masked, armed men in camouflage are often seen rushing in and out of the building, pushing journalists aside and yelling "make way!"
Tacitly backed by Russia, the People's Republic of Donetsk refuses to recognize Ukraine's new interim government which came into power after pro-European demonstrations toppled the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Ukraine has launched what it called a counter terrorist operation against the separatists, and insists that the referendum is illegal because it is being foisted on the local population by an armed militia.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin surprised observers on Wednesday when he called on rebels in Donetsk to postpone the referendum in a move widely seen as an attempt by the Kremlin to distance itself from the events in Donetsk. But the People's Republic of Donetsk, despite their deference to Putin, voted to go ahead with the referendum.
Litvinov insists that he's only up against a bureaucracy in organizing a regional referendum and that he's doing it for the common good.
"(Sometimes) it's necessary just come and open the school (where the polling station is organized) ourselves. We are very polite, we don't break anything."
But in a region where dozens have been killed in fighting that broke out since last month, many are simply afraid to argue.
"People come to polling stations and using intimidation try to force officials into holding the referendum," said Valery Zhaldak, adviser to the lawfully appointed governor of the Donetsk region, Sergei Taruta. "When it's a matter of life and death, you can't judge people for not complying (with the gunmen)."
According to local reports from neighboring Lugansk, a polling official was beaten by armed men who came to his building demanding he hold the referendum. But local police didn't take his complaints seriously.
According to Zhaldak, that is because police are too demoralized to fight separatism -- and because they have separatist sympathizers in their ranks.
In March, Russia annexed Ukraine's breakaway Crimea after a near unanimous referendum to join Russia was held in the presence of armed troops.
But in Donetsk, the sentiment is not nearly as clear-cut as in Crimea, and the Russian support is not nearly as obvious.
Locals interviewed in this city of nearly 1 million did not so much want to secede from Ukraine as break away from a Kiev government they do not trust. They had mixed feelings for the gunmen who seized buildings, and some were afraid to go on the record criticizing them, fearing reprisals.
Vladimir Rafeyenko, a Russian writer who was born and lives in Donetsk, supports federalization but he says that has to be in the form of concrete economic steps, not the "chaos" he describes seeing.
"I don't understand what this referendum is about, I don't understand what it is going to achieve."
He is not alone.
Donetsk's legally appointed mayor Alexander Lukyanchenko told local media this week that the referendum â€" which asks only about independence from Ukraine -- is ignoring what locals here had demonstrated for earlier, which was more autonomy.
Polls reflect this complexity in a region where, unlike Western Ukraine, more than 79(PERCENT) of the population speaks Russian.
But according to another poll, conducted last month by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, most residents here don't want to secede. But they also don't trust the current government in Kiev, a placeholder government until national elections for president are held May 25.
Ukraine's government has blamed the unrest in east Ukraine squarely on Russia. Yet unlike Crimea, where Russian soldiers were seen patrolling the streets and where Putin eventually admitted the presence of Russian troops, the connection is not as direct as it may appear.
Russia's support appears to be indirect in many ways, with hundreds of volunteers and possibly individual fighters with ties to security and armed forces in Russia flocking to Ukraine.
Last month, Ukraine's top security official said that up to 100 Russian security agents were active in the Donetsk region. That could neither be confirmed nor ruled out, Zhaldak said.
"Russia isn't so much fueling this as doing nothing to stop it. It is interested in an unstable situation. Political elites understand that the kind of wave that began in Kiev could reach Russia," Zhaldak said.
Locals believe Russia could be involved, but that ultimately isn't what worries them the most.
"For most of the people here, the main thing is to keep the country intact, to maintain law and order. They want this chaos to stop," Rafeyenko, the writer, said.
Anna Arutunyan writes for USA Today.