DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Rebel-held territories in eastern Ukraine prepared Saturday to elect legislators and executives in a vote that has been roundly condemned by the international community but backed by Russia.
Work at some polling stations in the largest separatist-controlled city of Donetsk was disrupted by a sudden intensification of hostilities. Artillery and small weapons fire could be heard in northern districts of the city near the airport, which has been the focus of heavy fighting for weeks.
Separatist authorities argue that Sunday's votes in the Donetsk Peoples Republic and Luhansk Peoples Republic will lend legitimacy to their aspirations for self-determination.
"We have put too much at stake on the altar of the victory and through this election we are legitimizing our government and thereby separating from Ukraine even further," said rebel election chief Roman Lyagin.
Western governments and the United Nations say the vote violates the terms of a cease-fire agreement signed by Russia, Ukraine and rebel leaders in September, which envisioned local elections being held under Ukrainian laws.
The White House has denounced the planned elections as being contrary to Ukraine's constitution.
In a statement, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said Friday that the U.S. is warning Russia not to use the results of the voting as a pretext to make military moves into Ukraine.
The EU and the United Nations have also criticized the vote, but the Russian Foreign Ministry has argued that the Minsk agreement foresaw local elections in the rebel-held territories between Oct. 19 and Nov. 3.
"There is a chance to use the Nov. 2 vote to bring the situation into the constructive course instead of thoughtless and groundless inciting of confrontation," the ministry said in a statement this week.
The vote has appeared under-resourced, campaigning has been negligible, and there are fears that unrest may break out on the day.
It is unclear how many people will be able to vote as rebel officials say they have no access to central Ukrainian electoral rolls. Polling station workers on Friday made final preparations by sticking rebel government labels over voting urns bearing the Ukrainian national emblem.
No established international monitoring group is overseeing the vote, although a motley group of European far-right and communist political activists has traveled to the region, offering to act as observers.
Attitudes toward the election in Donetsk are a mix of fatalism, despair and enthusiasm.
Tatyana Chaban, chairwoman of an election commission in Donetsk, said she has helped organize Ukrainian votes for the past decade.
"If someone had told me a year ago that I would be working in an independent state, I would never have believed it," Chaban said. "But since I decided to stay in Donetsk ... I accepted this government and will now live under its laws."
Donetsk retiree Vera Dvornikova, who has been living in a basement for three months and has been without heat or electricity for the past month, said she saw no point in voting.
"They want election. What elections, when there are no people left here?" Dvornikova said. "I will not go to vote until they pay me my pension."
Alexei Mitsuk, a 53-year-old doctor, said he would vote to help build the future of the Donetsk People's Republic. "We will elect our future," he said.
Three candidates are running to lead the rebel government in Donetsk, but only current leader Alexander Zakharchenko has any kind of public profile, making him the likely victor.
The candidates are not campaigning against each other, and one has admitted that he has no chance of winning and that he supports Zakharchenko.
In an apparent effort to boost turnout, voting will be open to people as young as 16, a decision Lyagin said was inspired by similar rules in the recent Scotrish independence referendum.
While September's cease-fire deal helped reduce hostilities in eastern Ukraine, fighting has continued around Donetsk and a few other areas. Intense artillery and light-weapons fire could be heard for more than an hour Saturday morning in northern Donetsk.
Despite the unrest, shoppers still turned out at a market by the city railway station.
Yelena, who asked for her surname not to be published for fear of reprisals, said she would vote despite the fighting, but she is disappointed that the rebel leaders have failed to restore basic amenities.
"If only someone would help to turn on the gas and electricity, at least for the election," Yelena said.