KYIV -- France and Germany have called elections by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine “illegal and illegitimate,” joining a chorus of international criticism over the vote.
Kyiv and its international backers said the November 11 polls in the areas controlled by the separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions would further hamper efforts to end a conflict that has killed more than 10,300 people since April 2014.
However, Moscow argued that the elections to choose the separatists heads in Donetsk and Luhansk and members of the local legislatures would not violate the Minsk agreements aimed at putting an end to the violence.
With about one-third of the votes counted, 37-year-old Denis Pushilin was leading with 57.3 percent of the ballots, while Leonid Pasechnik, the acting Luhansk leader, was ahead with 70.4 percent, according to the TASS news agency. Both results are in line with expectations.
"These so-called elections undermine the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine," Merkel and Macron said in a joint statement late on November 11 after meeting Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko during World War I commemorations in France.
Germany, France and Ukraine are part of the so-called "Normandy format" countries seeking a resolution to the conflict. Russia is the fourth country in the format, which has not held talks in two years.
Pushilin, the acting head of the separatists in the Donetsk region, has worked a series of jobs including casino croupier and pushing financial products for MMM, a successor to the infamous Russian Ponzi scheme that swindled tens of thousands of people after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The previous separatist leader in Donetsk, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, died in an explosion in August. Moscow pointed the finger at Ukraine, while Kyiv blamed internal fighting between the separatists and “their Russian sponsors."
Pasechnik, 48, is a former regional chief of the Ukrainian Security Service.
Both Pushilin and Pasechnik have promised to seek tighter ties with Moscow.
Voting was held amid tightened security, with gun-toting, camouflage-clad soldiers deployed to ensure order.
Posters around the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, the main city in the region of the same name, called on people to vote "with Russia in your heart," according to the AFP news agency.
The last separatist elections were held in 2014 despite protests from Kyiv and the West, which didn’t recognize their results.
Ukraine, the United States, and the European Union had already condemned the latest vote as a sham manipulated by Russia and in violation of the accords -- signed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, in September 2014 and February 2015 -- laying out steps for settling the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
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EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called on Russia "to make full use of its considerable influence over the separatists it backs" to ensure the speedy and complete implementation of the Minsk agreements "starting with a comprehensive cease-fire and the withdrawal of heavy weaponry."
In a tweet on November 11, Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, accused Russia of "institutionalizing the status quo through sham 'elections'."
"Instead of implementing Minsk and moving towards #peace4Ukraine, Russia is subsidizing corrupt leaders of Donbas, training and equipping the illegal armed formations, institutionalizing the status quo through sham “elections,” and blocking diplomatic progress," Volker tweeted.
NATO said in a statement that the elections “undermine efforts towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict” and reiterated its call on Russia to “withdraw its forces and cease all support to militant groups” in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukrainian authorities had urged residents of the separatist-held territories to boycott the elections, warning that their participation would violate Ukrainian legislation.
The separatists and Moscow rejected appeals to cancel the elections, with Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova saying in October that the vote is needed "to fill the vacuum in power" following Zakharchenko’s death.
"Actually, the deplorable situation with the implementation of the Minsk package was provoked by Kyiv's unwillingness to fulfill the Minsk agreements," Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on November 6.
Separatists seized territory in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions after a popular uprising ousted Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014 and Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula a month later.
The United States and other Western countries have imposed sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and its backing of the separatists.
However, Moscow has repeatedly denied financing and equipping the separatist forces despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, insisting that the fighting was a civil, internal conflict.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine persists despite cease-fire deals reached as part of the Minsk agreements, and implementation of other measures set out in the deals has been slow.
Ahead of the vote, four Ukrainian soldiers were reported killed in or near separatist-held areas, the military said on November 10.