DONETSK, Ukraine — Preparations for Ukraine’s presidential elections on Sunday are not going well in the eastern part of the country.
Armed pro-Russian separatists have taken over dozens of polling stations, threatened district election committee members and declared the election illegal under the laws of the self-declared independent Donetsk People’s Republic. Its leaders said they plan to prevent, by any means, the election of a “neighboring state” from taking place.
“I’m afraid this election is not going to take place here,” said Yevgen Nasadyuk, a member of the election committee for the Kuybishevsky district in central Donetsk. Nasadyuk said he was in charge of organizing and staffing 10 of the 99 polling stations for the district’s 152,690 voters.
“None of my stations are able to work,” Nasadyuk said. “We don’t even have the ballots. They’ve kidnapped our election commission head and stolen our voters’ registration list. How could we have this election?”
Meanwhile, more fighting between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian military continued across the volatile region, with seven more casualties reported Thursday. In the last two days, 25 Ukrainian troops have died in clashes with the rebels.
The separatists’ intimidation tactics seem to be working on eastern Ukrainian voters who would like to go to the polls for what could be the most important election since independence from the Soviet Union.
“I do not know whether the election will take place here. Every minute something happens,” said Tatyana Kravtsova, 53, from Krasnoarmeysk, a mining city about 40 miles from Donetsk, the regional capital. “If there are any provocations, people will just go home and will not vote.”
On Friday the mayor of Krasnoarmeysk told parents to pick up their children from school and take them home. Residents were advised to stock up on food and sit at home for the next two or three days because there is fighting in the region, Kravtsova said. The precautions came even though the city of about 80,000 has not had any government buildings taken over by pro-Russian separatists and the city administration said it was planning to go ahead with the polling on Sunday.
“What are we supposed to think?” she asked. “That we can go to the polls safely?”
Whether eastern Ukrainians are able or willing to show up to the polls will largely determine the next president’s mandate in the divided country. But the central government in Kiev has said that regardless of the turnout in the east, the vote will go forward.
Indeed, there is a lot at stake for the election. The country has been in crisis for more than six months, since anti-government protesters took to Kiev’s central square and refused to leave until then-President Viktor Yanukovych stepped down. The protesters succeeded, but not before violent clashes with government riot police killed more than 100.
The protests in Kiev angered many in the eastern part of the country, particularly the industrial regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where the population largely consists of Russian speakers with a strong affiliation with Russia and lingering nostalgia for the former Soviet Union. They view the ousting of Yanukovych — whose political base was in the east — as a coup and have very little trust in the interim government that called for the early election to replace him.
On May 11, those two regions held a referendum on regional sovereignty and declared independence from Kiev. The central government dismissed the results and blamed neighboring Russia for orchestrating the separatist actions, just as it did with the Crimean referendum and annexation two months earlier.
With parts of the country now at odds with each other and very little trust left in the central government, Ukraine is placing its bets on the winner of the election to lead the country out of the crisis.
In Kiev and the western and central regions, Ukrainians say they are expecting a high turnout on Sunday, when they cast their votes for one of the 21 names on the ballot.
Many say they will vote for the apparent front-runner, billionaire Petro Poroshenko, a member of parliament and former minister of economics and foreign affairs. Many see Poroshenko — a businessman and the owner of Roshen, a successful confectionery company — as someone who would help get Ukraine’s economy back on track.
More important, many western Ukrainians say they just hope he’s popular enough to win the election in the first round, so the country can avoid a June 15 runoff between the top two vote getters.
“It’s time to have a president as soon as possible and one who is acknowledged by everyone in the world,” said Dariya Boris, 61, an accountant in Lviv. “Someone must win in the first round, and he seems to be the only one with a chance to do it.”
In the east, however, the mood about the election is one of trepidation.
On Friday afternoon when the news hours started on Radio Republic, Yuri Sychenko turned up the volume. The radio station is based in Donetsk and is now operated by armed rebels who took over the broadcasting operation.
The news started with the weather in Moscow and then quickly moved to reports about the success of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s economic summit, taking place in St. Petersburg. There was no mention that earlier in the day, Putin had said Russia would respect the outcome of Ukraine’s presidential vote. In that speech Putin said Ukraine is now in a full-scale civil war but hoped a new president would order an end to Ukraine’s military operation against the eastern separatists.
The report from St. Petersburg was followed by local news about fighting between the “republic” and the “occupying forces,” as the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic refer to the Ukrainian military.
Sychenko said that he has no intention of voting this weekend and that he considers the government in Kiev illegal. They no longer have authority over the eastern regions, so they are just wasting money on trying to hold an election in the east, he said.
He said it’s time for Kiev to acknowledge that the Donbas, as the eastern region is known, is an independent country.
“But Kiev doesn’t want to let us go because they know that we have all the industry here. They can’t survive without us,” Sychenko said. “But we will survive without them, and they have to accept us.”