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By Matthias Williams and Anton Zverev
KIEV / MOSCOW (Reuters) – Rebel-led Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine hold leadership elections on Sunday in the shadow of a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people and poisoned relations between Ukraine and Russia.
Ukraine and its international backers have proposed to condemn the vote as a shame manipulated by the Russian authorities and in violation of a Minsk violence agreement from 2015. The United States called on voters to boycott.
Backed by Moscow, repeated separatist rebels territory in eastern Ukraine after pro-Western protests summoned President Viktor Yanukovych in February 201
4 and Russia attached the Crimea one month later.
The United States called the election a charade to give false legitimacy to Moscow-approved leaders already installed in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. It announced new sanctions on Russia on Thursday.
“These special elections are really an idea for the choice of real elections that must be held,” said Kurt Volker, Washington’s envoy to the Ukraine conflict, to reporters at a conference call on Thursday.
“They are under occupation conditions, where there is no freedom of speech, no freedom of movement, no freedom for campaigns and generally, therefore, no choice for the people to choose candidates for legitimate local leadership positions” said.
President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko called the election “illegal and represents another example of Russian subversive activities”.
Russia denies that the election violates the Minsk agreement.
“The regrettable situation with the implementation of the Minsk package was provoked by Kiev’s unwillingness to comply with the Minsk agreements,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to journalists.
Donetsk region actor, Denis Pushilin, runs on Sunday election after its predecessor Alexander Zakharchenko died in an explosion in August. Russia pointed to the finger in Ukraine, while Kiev’s security service blamed internally fighting “between the terrorists and their Russian sponsors”.
Several former separatist leaders have fled from the Donbass area and said they feared for their lives after their comrades turned to them. Other leading separatist commanders have been killed in unexplained circumstances.
“Pushilin is a soap bubble, there are completely different people behind him, this is Moscow,” said a former separatist leader Alexei Alexandrov to Reuters.
Ukrainian-based analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said that Russia used the election to give the leaders of the region legitimacy and can try to fight the battles into a frozen conflict with the two outbreaks of protectorates.
Peskov acknowledged Russia had influence on the region’s leaders but said “it is not unlimited”.
(Further reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, writing by Matthias Williams, editing by William Maclean)