Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Pro-Russian separatists controlling swathes of east Ukraine are set to hold leadership polls on Sunday that Moscow has backed despite condemnation from Kiev and the West.
While insurgent leaders hope the first elections in their "republics" will show they have popular support, Ukraine and the West fear the ballot is being staged to drag the Russian-speaking industrial east further from the grip of Kiev's pro-Western government.
"The elections will allow us to build a legitimate government," said rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko, the self-appointed prime minister of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic.
Like his counterpart in neighbouring breakaway region Lugansk, Igor Plotnitsky, Zakharchenko is favourite to win the election in the fiefdom his armed fighters control.
Since the start of a pro-Russian rebellion in April, the coal-mining Donetsk and Lugansk regions have been roiled by a brutal conflict that has seen over 3,700 killed by fighting between Kiev and separatist forces.
The vote has driven yet another wedge between Russia on one side and Kiev and the West on the other -- already eyeball-to-eyeball over claims that Moscow has fuelled the conflict and sent troops across the border.
The Russian government expects "the elections will go ahead as agreed" and will "of course recognise the results," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week.
"We are counting on it being a free vote and that it will go ahead unhindered," he told Russian newspaper Izvestiya.
That drew a stinging response from the international community.
The United Nations, the European Union and the United States have all decried the election, and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko said it would "put the entire peace process under threat."
In the balance, they say, is a battered ceasefire deal and roadmap for peace that Kiev reached with the rebels at Kremlin-backed talks last month.
The truce has been breached continuously since then by deadly clashes that have claimed scores of lives in contested hotspots around the region.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the vote and its recognition by Russia would be a "clear violation of the commitments" they made under the truce agreement.
The drums of war have already started up with rebels on Thursday warning they could go on the attack to ward off an offensive they fear Kiev is plotting.
- Low-key campaign -
The campaign leading up to the rebel polls has been subdued and competition minimal.
In Donetsk only a few posters of Zakharchenko can be seen around the city and in other towns around there are no signs of the vote.
Across the board candidates standing in the leadership and parliament polls are united in their goal for total independence from Kiev and integration with Russia.
Although the rebel leadership has appointed an election committee and even launched early voting on the Internet for people who have moved away from the region, the total number of voters is not clear.
In theory before the crisis there were some five million voters in the region, but hundreds of thousands have fled their homes due to the fighting.
To make up for it rebels announced a voting age of just 16.
The vote is set to take place with no international monitors, though Russia has announced that some of its lawmakers would like to observe.
- Voting under fire -
For some inhabitants in the war-scarred rebel stronghold the vote represents a chance to make their voice heard.
"I am going to vote if there is no bombing in my neighbourhood," said 62-year-old Oksana Vasilyevna, who lives close to where fighting still rages over the ruins of the Donetsk airport.
But others were more sceptical.
"We don't have electricity or water. There is no way to watch television to follow the news. What do you want me to tell you about these elections and these candidates?" said 68-year-old Nikolai.
Rebels fighters said they are bullish. A commander nicknamed "the Sergeant-Major" said the polls would be another step towards self-determination.
"The elections will let us show little by little that we are building our own state," he said. "It's slow and difficult, but this is our own path now, separate from Ukraine."
And Russian analysts agree the polls could represent a key stepping stone in the birth of the rebel states.
"These elections are indispensable for making their political regimes more legitimate," said Moscow-based political analyst Konstantin Kalachev.
The polls will be a "new starting point" for Donetsk and Lugansk, "even though it's not clear who will recognise them," he added.