Give us recognition, Ukraine rebel voters demand
The elections may already have been slammed as a farce by the West but those queuing to cast their ballots in east Ukraine's rebel polls on Sunday insisted their voices should be heard.
"I hope that our votes will change something.
Perhaps we will finally be recognised as a real, independent country," Tatyana, 65, said as she waited at a polling station at school number 104 in insurgent stronghold Donetsk.
At another voting station across the war-torn city music blared from loudspeakers and people tucked into cheap pies as they waited in the queue to elect the president and parliament members in this self-proclaimed rebel republic.
Despite the occasional hint of normalcy, the vote here was anything but a regular election.
Held as fighting rumbled across the conflict zone, the voting has driven a new wedge between Russia and the West, and threatened to plunge Ukraine into further chaos.
Kiev and much of the international community have decried the election as window-dressing aimed at legitimising the Russian-backed armed men who seized control of Ukraine's industrial heartland.
Defying Western opinion, Moscow has already announced it will accept the result of the vote.
For some of those voting, the poll was the only hope they felt they still had for their ravaged region and that from now on there could be no going back into the Ukrainian fold.
"After the vote our leaders will be elected and they have to receive recognition by all foreign countries," said Olga, 47.
"By Russia first of all but also by the others.
" - 'Follow Lenin and Stalin' -Competition at the polls was not exactly fierce, since all the candidates were rebel leaders bent on breaking from Kiev's grip.
The clear favourite to win the top job here was Alexander Zakharchenko, 38, the current leader of the heavily-armed militants running the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic.
"He is young, he is going to put an end to this war and fight against corruption," said retiree Nadezhda Yermochenko.
"He has to follow the example of Lenin and Stalin who were honest and didn't steal," Yermochenko, 74, said.
For many of the mainly elderly voters, though, the poll is not so much about backing the rebel leadership as rejecting the rule of Ukraine's pro-Western government, which they blame for the seven months of carnage that has claimed over 4,000 lives.
"First of all we must gain our independence from the fascists in Kiev," said engineer Anatoly.
Once that is achieved he hopes the rebels can push on to claim more ground to make their nascent nation more viable.
"Then we have to enlarge our territory and grab Odessa and Kharkiv and other towns that should be historically ours," the 59-year-old engineer said.
- 'How much more blood?' -Around the ruins of Donetsk airport where fierce fighting still rages most days between rebel forces and Ukrainian government troops, the situation was unusually calm Sunday.
Just the occasional blast of artillery fire interrupted the quiet after days of heavy clashes in the run-up to the vote.
However, a column of 20 lorries en route for the frontline showed that despite the respite no one expects the vote to herald any let up in the fighting soon.
"I can't really explain why it is so calm but we are ready for anything," said a rebel commander nicknamed Gruzin, who drives around the frontline in a car decorated with a portrait of Stalin.
During the day a minibus with ballot boxes came to the position under his command to collect the votes of the fighters there.
"I hope that after these elections that they'll hear our voice," the rebel commander said.
"How much more blood needs to be spilt to achieve this?".
© 2014 AFP