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25 May 2014 06:17
A Ukrainian policeman patrols a polling station in the village of Kosmach in western Ukraine on Saturday. (Kacper Pempel, Reuters)
Ukrainians are widely expected to give a resounding endorsement to the overthrow of their last elected leader by voting on Sunday for presidential
candidates promising close ties with the West, in defiance of Russia’s Vladimir
But the absence of more than 15% of the electorate, in Russian-annexed
Crimea and two eastern regions where fighting with pro-Moscow rebels continued
on Saturday, may mar any result - and leave the Kremlin questioning the
victor’s legitimacy, for all of a pledge by Putin to respect the people’s will.
European election monitors largely pulled out of Donetsk region for their
own safety, citing a campaign of “terror” by pro-Russian separatists
against Ukrainian electoral officials.
Polls make a billionaire confectionery magnate known as the “chocolate king”
an overwhelming favourite in a vote expected to show a high turnout on a warm,
sunny day. For many the biggest question is whether Petro Poroshenko, who has
been a minister in the past, can take more than 50% to win outright in one
Poroshenko (48) was a strong backer of the protests against Moscow-backed
president Viktor Yanukovich last winter and has sought a quick victory by
warning that new unrest might prevent a second voting round.
His closest, if distant, rival is former prime minister and wealthy former
businesswoman Yulia Tymoshenko, who is 53-years-old.
She seems best placed to
contest a run-off in three weeks but remains a divisive figure to many: more
closely associated than Poroshenko with the economic failures and rampant
corruption that have marred Ukraine’s 23 years of independence from Soviet
Officials say many polling stations in Ukraine’s Russian speaking regions
will not open for fear of attack and only early on Sunday will they try to
distribute ballot papers to those areas where voting may be possible.
Voting will start at 5am GMT and end 12 hours later.
Putin to ‘respect’ result
Western states backed those who took power when Yanukovich fled to Russia
three months ago after street protests triggered by his rejection of a free
trade agreement with the EU. They hope that an electoral mandate for a new
leader can help resolve a confrontation with Russia that has sparked military
build-ups east and west of Ukraine and raised fears of a new Cold War.
Putin pledged on Saturday to “respect” the people’s choice and
work with Ukraine’s new administration - a conciliatory promise made during an
economic forum at which he acknowledged US and EU sanctions over Ukraine are
hurting the Russian economy.
But he defended his annexation of Crimea in March as a response to the
democratic will of the majority ethnic Russian population there. Kiev and its
Western allies accuse Moscow of a propaganda war to sow fear among Russian
speakers in eastern and southern Ukraine of “fascist” Ukrainian
nationalists and of supporting rebel forces that have seized many towns in the
Two weeks ago, separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions held
referendums they said let them break from Kiev and opened a way to possibly
following Crimea into union with Russia. Moscow denies any plan to seize more
Ukrainian territory, despite a substantial build-up of its troops on its
frontier with Ukraine.
Opinion polls before the last few months of violence showed disillusion with
Kiev’s politicians in the Russian-speaking, industrial east but limited
appetite for outright secession.
Putin played down talk of a return to Cold War with the West and dismissed
the idea he was bent on restoring the former USSR, whose collapse he has in the
past lamented. Europeans fear a resurgent Moscow dismissive of civil rights,
but Putin said he was only asserting Moscow’s right to be treated as an equal.
Washington and its EU allies are concerned that while Russia may accept the
election result, it may use influence in eastern Ukraine to undermine the new
president’s authority and keep the country beholden to Moscow. Russian
officials have questioned the value of holding the vote when the east is in
Ukraine, with 45-million people, is the second most populous ex-Soviet state
and plays a pivotal role in the political and economic relations between Russia
and the EU.
Large volumes of Russian natural gas flow across it to Germany and other
consumers, creating mutual dependencies that complicate diplomatic calculations
on all sides of the conflict.
The inheritor of a historical patchwork of regions variously ruled from not
only Moscow but by Poland, Austria and others, Ukraine has a mix of Russian and
Ukrainian speakers as well as many ethnic minorities, all of whom have
struggled to forge a common national purpose. Polls have consistently shown a
majority supporting independence and good ties with both east and west.
Since the “Orange Revolution” in 2004, Ukrainians of all stripes
have been disappointed with the subsequent decade of economic drift and
corruption, arguably the worst in Europe. Their hopes are now pinned on
Sunday’s vote to turn that around and start history afresh.
Few of the leading candidate are new faces, however.
Poroshenko and Tymoshenko played leading roles in the administrations that
preceded Yanukovich’s defeat of Tymoshenko in the 2010 election. Poroshenko
later even held a Cabinet post for a time under Yanukovich.
Both became wealthy in the anarchic post-Soviet 1990s. Poroshenko is now
worth $1.3-billion, according to Forbes, through his confectionery and chocolate
empire, while Tymoshenko made money as the “gas princess” through her
involvement in the trade and transit of Russian natural gas.
After the Orange Revolution, when he was head of the national security
council and she prime minister, the two traded mutual accusations of
corruption. Tymoshenko was jailed for corrupt gas deals with Russia under
Yanukovich but was released when he was toppled and her record was cleared of
Olga, an 82-year-old pensioner out for a walk in central Kiev on Saturday,
said she thought Poroshenko could make the best attempt at ending six months of
agitation and uncertainty.
“He is a businessman,” she noted doubtfully as she strolled with
her husband, Nikolai, across Independence Square, known as Maidan, where
militant anti-Yanukovich protesters are still camped out, determined to hold new
leaders to their promises.
“But he’ll be good for the state and the people. He has factories near
us and created jobs. He can calm things down.”
But in the easternmost city of Luhansk, would-be voter Oleksander
Cherednichenko doubted whether people there would be able to take part at all:
“People are afraid that if they do go to a polling station that there will
be gunmen there,” he said.
“The best case scenario is that gunmen will
just tell them to get out. The worst case scenario is that they shoot
them.” - Reuters
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