DONETSK, Ukraine — Separatists in two provinces of eastern Ukraine conducted chaotic and sometimes violent plebiscites Sunday that offered voters just one question about self-rule, while raising many more about where events in the region were headed.
Large crowds turned out in some cities to cast votes meant to legitimize the separatists’ declarations of independent “people’s republics” in the two provinces. But the voting left unclear whether the two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, will now follow the Crimean Peninsula in seeking to be annexed by Russia.
Nearly everyone who cast a ballot appeared to be voting in favor of greater autonomy from the Ukrainian central government in Kiev. Opponents appeared to be staying away from the polls, as many had said they would. The ballot papers that could be seen in transparent ballot boxes in two cities, Donetsk and Slovyansk, were almost all marked yes.
Pro-Russia insurgents, in announcing preliminary results, said 90 percent of voters in the two provinces came out in favor of sovereignty.
But the voting took place in such a raw state of lawlessness that no one other than the organizers and perhaps their Russian patrons seemed likely to accept the results as a democratic expression of the voters’ will.
The United States, many European nations. and the government in Kiev all condemned the referendums, saying they were illegal and likely to worsen the violence in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russia groups and the central government. Even President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has generally supported the separatists, publicly distanced himself from the referendums last week, saying they should be delayed. The separatists still went ahead.
In one town, Ukrainian security forces shot a man to death outside a polling station as an angry crowd, ignoring warning shots, rushed toward a building that the soldiers controlled.
In some other cities, voters took ballots that were run off on photocopiers and stuffed them into cardboard boxes that the organizers spirited off quickly, lest they be seized by pro-government forces.
By contrast, the atmosphere at polling places in Donetsk city, the capital of the province, was carnival-like, with balloons decorating the entrances and loudspeakers playing Soviet-era songs. Families with children in tow stood in long lines waiting to vote.
Many people who cast ballots said they hoped the election would solidify the self-styled independent republics enough to tamp down the violence in the region. Roman Agrisov, a 40-year-old steelworker, said he wanted his vote to signal to the central government to pull its troops out of eastern Ukraine.
“I am voting because I don’t want war,” he said.
But the voting could just as easily escalate the low-level fighting into a civil war between Russian-backed breakaway regions and Kiev.
The interim central government and many leaders in the West have said that the separatists in eastern Ukraine were proxies for the Russian intelligence services and were trying to destabilize the country after mass protests drove Ukraine’s former pro-Russian leader from power.
Yulia V. Tymoshenko, a Ukrainian presidential candidate, said that Russian meddling in the east was splintering Ukraine into a “Yugoslavia scenario.”
Separatist groups in eastern Ukraine appeared unfazed by the international condemnation of the voting.
The provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk are predominantly Russian-speaking and in past elections they have tended to back pro-Russia politicians. But that does not mean most people there want to secede from Ukraine. A poll by the Pew Research Center released this month indicated that 70 percent of respondents in eastern Ukraine favored keeping the country united, while only 18 percent favored secession; the remainder were undecided.
The referendums demonstrated that there was substantial popular support for the pro-Russia separatists in some areas. But it offered no reliable gauge of the breadth of that support. It was not clear whether long voting lines had formed because few polling places were open or because turnout was running high.
At a half-dozen polling places visited by reporters, except for those in Slovyansk, there were no voting rolls to consult; anyone who could show a local address in official identity papers was allowed to cast a ballot. Tatyana Us, a volunteer election official, referred to the practice as “open list” voting.
Beyond the provincial capital, the semblance of a normal election frayed, marking a contrast with the secessionist referendum held in Crimea in March. That voting was conducted plausibly and calmly across the province, though its results, too, were not recognized in Kiev or in the West.
Despite their slapdash nature, the referendums risked escalating the smoldering conflict in Ukraine by entrenching the political wings of pro-Russia militant groups, giving them a chance to claim at least the semblance of a popular mandate, while facing the authorities in Kiev with the awkward problem of appearing to defy voters.
Sergiy Pashinskiy, the acting chief of staff for Ukraine’s presidential administration, denounced the voting.
“The so-called referendum in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions is an attempt by the terrorists to cover up their crimes,” Pashinskiy said. “In fact, there is no referendum taking place.”
He said that voting was being held in about one-third of the region and that the organizers of the separatist balloting would be prosecuted.