DONETSK, Ukraine - In an obscure government office guarded by a man in a red T-shirt armed only with a stick, two photocopy machines churned out ballots Thursday for eastern Ukraine's referendum on secession, as they have been doing around the clock for days.
In apparent defiance of a call by Russian President Vladimir Putin to put off the vote, insurgents in eastern Ukraine insisted Thursday they will go ahead with this weekend's referendum as planned.
"Putin is seeking a way out of the situation. We are grateful to him for this," said Denis Pushilin, co-chairman of the Donetsk People's Republic, as the pro-Russian rebels call themselves.
A pro-Russian gunman speaks by phone in front of the city hall decorated with the flag of self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, in the center of Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, Thursday. A strong majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain a single, unified state and this is true even in the largely Russian-speaking east where a pro-Russia insurgency has been fighting for autonomy, a poll released Thursday shows.
"But we are just a bullhorn for the people," he declared. "We just voice what the people want."
Ukraine has in recent weeks grown perilously polarized, with the west looking toward Europe and the east favoring closer ties with Russia. Thursday's pronouncement was likely to further inflame tensions between the interim government in Kiev that took power amid chaos in February and the armed insurgents, who have seized police stations and government buildings in more than a dozen cities in the east.
Support for the referendum is most pronounced among eastern Ukraine's proudly Russian-speaking working class. Rage against the central government that came to power after months of nationalist-tinged protests is blended with despair at Ukraine's dire economic straits and corruption.
The occasionally violent protests that culminated in President Viktor Yanukovych's fleeing to Russia were viewed by many in the east as a coup and a portent of repression against the region's majority Russian speakers.
"This isn't our government. It's the government of those that destroyed everything," said construction laborer Galina Lukash, 48, who plans to vote in favor of autonomy.
Along with the vote Sunday in the eastern Donetsk region, a similar and even more hastily improvised referendum is to take place in the neighboring Luhansk region. Together they have about 6.5 million people.
The votes are similar to the one in Crimea in March that preceded Russia's annexation of that strategic Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula. Like the one in Crimea, they are regarded as illegitimate by both Kiev and the West.
But unlike the Crimean vote, which was held as Russian soldiers and affiliated local militias held control of the peninsula, the latest votes are being held amid armed conflict. And, critically, unlike Crimea, whose majority Russian-speaking population made approval a foregone conclusion, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have a more mixed population.