On May 12, the day after the staging of an unrecognized and farcical referendum in many cities of Luhansk Oblast, the Kremlin-backed organizers announced the region's independence from Kyiv.
Despite having no international observers, voter lists or other standard niceties of a democratic vote, the organizers claimed that a whopping 96 percent of voters in the oblast -- where nearly 5 percent of the nation's 45 million people live -- support splitting off from Ukraine.
The referendum's backers were also unperturbed by polls showing most Luhansk residents want to live in Ukraine. Several of their leaders went ahead and announced their plans to petition Vladimir Putin to join Russia.
While Ukraine’s government and its Western allies called this referendum illegal, the armed people who for more than a month have controlled government offices in Luhansk, said they are planning to build a new country and seek integration with the newly proclaimed neighboring People's Republic of Donetsk and Russia.
They also want to spread the separatist movement into other Ukrainian oblasts.
Thousands rallied in the evening at Luhansk main square to celebrate separation from Ukraine, ignoring perhaps that they were doing so in front of the monument to the poet Taras Shevchenko, an iconic figure in Ukrainian history who stood for the nation's self-determination.
“I congratulate you with the birth of the independent Luhansk Republic,” Aleksandr Malykhin, head of election commission of separatists told the crowd, which responded shouting “Bravo!” and “Well done” and “Donbass!”
People waved yellow flags of the southeast army, a flag of the Donetsk republic and several Russian flags.
Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, head of the Security Service of Ukraine (or SBU), announced last week that people involved in separatism may face up to 15 years in prison and even a life sentence if their actions lead to someone’s death.
But in Luhansk, where even members of the government's oblast councils supported separatists, people consider the politicians in Kyiv to be the criminals.
They spoke from the stage fearlessly.
Among them were Valery Bolotov, so-called people’s governor of Luhansk Oblast. He showed up in a military uniform surrounded by three men with Kalashnikovs.
“For 24 four years of Ukraine’s independence, Kyiv considered the people of Luhansk either second-class or puppets in political games,” Bolotov said. “Now our young republic is taking only the first steps and these steps should be addressed for providing help to our brothers in other oblasts.”
Ukraine’s prosecutor general opened three criminal cases against Bolotov for separatism. One more suspect is Ukrainian parliamentarian Oleh Tsariov, who withdrew his candidacy from the May 25 presidential election to pursue his political ambition of leading Ukraine's southeastern regions.
Tsariov, who also came to the stage surrounded by armed bod guards, said that the Luhansk Republic should unite with the Donetsk Republic into a federation. He said the new state -- with more than 6 million people -- would be called Novorossiya, or New Russia, coincidentally the same geopolitical designation that the Russian president favors.
“Then we will move further to east,” he said. “Oh no, sorry, to the west,” Tsariov added, remembering that Russia is on the eastern border. Then Tsariov further outlined his plans, saying that Novorossiya should join a customs union with Russia and Belarus.
Nadezhda Bilenkova, a 61-year-old pensioner, was happily applauding speeches delivered from the stage.
“I feel proud now,” she said. “We didn’t live but rather just existed in Ukraine. But now we are free and I think we should unite with Donetsk and also Kharkiv regions. And if we go to Russia it will be only better for us. I was born in the USSR. I know this for sure.”
Vasily Nikitin, spokesman of the Luhansk separatists, said the Luhansk republic is working on its constitution and flag and is planning to ask the United Nations for international recognition as an independent state. European nations and America, among others, have already made clear they will not recognize the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, and even Russia was careful in its comments on the illegal referendums and their results.
This, however, didn’t bother people who crowded in Luhansk. “Many countries live without being recognized,” said Yulia Rubanova, a 16-year-old schoolgirl who was also present at the rally. “If Russia and maybe also China recognize us that would be enough I think.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.