KIEV, Ukraine — Pro-Russian separatists in the embattled east of Ukraine got their way today, marring a presidential election that went smoothly across the rest of the country and was being endorsed by poll observers as the cleanest in the 23 years since Ukraine broke from the Soviet Union.
Separatist leaders had vowed to stop the vote in the easternmost provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, and with a stepping up of violence in the run-up to the polls—including abducting election officials, storming local election commission offices and threatening poll workers—they managed to confirm the worst fears of election observers.
The disruption in the east added to worries that the election’s legitimacy will be challenged by Moscow, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belated endorsement of the election and promise to respect the outcome.
Minutes after the polls closed, exit polls projected that front-runner businessman and politician Petro Poroshenko, who in the run-up to the election had been widening his big lead over second-placed contender former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, had managed to secure the necessary 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a June run-off. Some pollsters had thought he might have been be denied an outright victory because of the crowded field of 21 candidates, but an exit poll gave him 56 percent of the votes cast.
For some voters Poroshenko, nicknamed the “Chocolate King” because of his confectionary empire, was the least bad option. For others he is seen as the man most likely to steer Ukraine away from bankruptcy, be able to stitch together a deal with Moscow and bring competence to government. But the challenges facing him are daunting, from how to see off the pro-Russian insurgents in the east and healing the divide to pushing ahead with root-and-branch reforms demanded by activists who ousted in February the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych.
If the final tally confirms the exit polls, he will have to deal with the old graft-filled parliament and a legislature his closest rival Tymoshenko wields considerable influence over.
The biggest surprise—and a likely worry for Poroshenko—is the eight percent of the vote garnered, according to the exit polls, by nationalist Oleh Lyashko. A paramilitary group he formed took credit last week for two gangland-style shootings of pro-Russian separatists.
On the eve of the elections, forecasts for how many voters in Donetsk and Luhansk would be able to vote steadily worsened in the face of a determined terror campaign by pro-Russian separatists to sabotage the polls. Despite a national appeal Saturday by Ukraine’s acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to all Ukrainians to stop “bandits sponsored from abroad” wrecking the polls in the east, the vast majority of the five million voters in Donetsk and Luhansk either stayed away out of fear or because there was no place to vote.
In the city of Donetsk, no polling stations were open and ballot boxes confiscated by armed separatists were stacked in front of the regional administration insurgents have long occupied and marked as “trash” bins. One polling station managed to open briefly in the city of one million but was closed ten minutes later by masked gunmen. And in the nearby town of Horlivka, right in the heart of east Ukraine’s so-called Bermuda Triangle, where dozens have gone missing in the past few weeks, no polling stations opened. With four hours until the polls closed, the turnout in Donetsk was only nine percent, compared to over 40 percent in the rest of the country, according to the election commission.
Across both oblasts the story was the same: the polling station in Dokuchaievsk was scheduled to open late at 10 a.m. but separatists ordered election officials in the town of 24,000 not do so and they didn’t demur.
In Luhansk oblast, eight districts failed to open up out of 12, according to Interior Ministry officials, but local reporters said only two were functioning.
International rights organizations monitoring the east condemned what they described as “a violence spree” by armed insurgents. “The police, who are legally obligated to provide around-the-clock protection for electoral commissions, have not intervened and in some cases assisted the attackers,” Human Rights Watch warned Sunday. “The violence by insurgents in eastern Ukraine has spiraled out of control,” said Hugh Williamson, a Europe director for the group. “Armed groups are targeting electoral commission staff in eastern Ukraine for simply doing their job.”
Elsewhere across the country voter turnout was high as Ukrainians flocked to polling stations and some districts reported long queues. Pollsters predicted that 70 percent of the voters would show up at polls. At school number 48 near Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, voting was brisk with voters saying they thought this was the most important election of their lives.
“I wanted to vote today to because I want my country to change and I want reform,” says 22-year-old Alesya Hrytsenko, a student. Blinking in the bright sun, she said she was an activist in the Maidan street protests that ousted in February the Moscow-backed government of Donetsk native Viktor Yanukovych.
She voted for physician Olga Bogomolets, a Maidan leader and long-shot candidate, arguing the doctor, who was nicknamed “White Angel” during the anti-Yanukovych uprising for the emergency aid she gave injured protesters, was the most likely reformer among the pack of 21 presidential contenders.
Last week, Vladimir Putin indicated for the first time that the election, the first since Yanukovych’s ouster, would be a useful first step in resolving the Ukraine crisis. His comments came following conciliatory remarks by election frontrunner Petro Poroshenko; a pro-Western billionaire nicknamed the “chocolate king” for his candy business.
The Kremlin also announced it was starting to pull back an estimated 40,000 troops massed on the border, easing Ukrainian and Western fears of a Russian intervention. But Ukrainian officials say that Moscow has been stirring the pot and that guns and former Russian servicemen have continued to cross into Ukraine. And Chechen fighters from the self-styled Vostok battalion arrived in central Donetsk today for a rally. The heavily-armed men were greeted as heroes with women in the crowd blowing them kisses.
Some voters prevented from casting ballots for one of the 21 candidates expressed deep anger at their disenfranchisement, blaming both the separatists for their sabotage and the government in Kiev for not doing enough to anticipate the disruption and ensuring better protection for polling stations and local election commissions. “I have no idea what is going on,” said Dmitry Andrusenko, a 56-year-old Donetsk native. “I wanted to vote. Why didn’t the government make sure there was somewhere secure we could travel to and cast our ballots?”
By midday only 308 polling stations out of 2430 in Donetsk oblast was functioning, according to a spokesman for the Kiev-appointed regional governor Serhiy Taruta. And only seven out of 15 elections commissions were functioning.
One polling station managed to open briefly in the city of one million but was closed ten minutes later by masked gunmen.
Speaking on the eve of the election, billed as the most important in the former Soviet republic’s 23 years of independence, the head of Ukraine’s League of Voters, Oleksandr Chernenko, faulted the government for failing to amend a law allowing the army to mount security at polling stations.
“The army could have done more,” he said. Relying on local police to provide election security was doomed from the start, he argued, either because they back the separatists or are too fearful to do their jobs and so collude with insurgency. He forecast that only about a third of voters in Donetsk would get to participate in a election most Ukrainians hope will start the processes of healing east-west divisions and prevent a further fracturing of the country.
But with the violence in the east escalating there are fears the election will mark another stage in the conflict. “Russia will fail at derailing our voting. We’ll have a legitimate president,” insisted Prime Minister Yatsenyuk.
Kiev voter Andrei, a 47-year-old teacher, agrees with Yatsenyuk. “After these elections I hope we will have a peaceful country and build a new life. I don’t think it important that people in two provinces couldn’t vote—the rest of the country is able to vote.”
Some polling stations in the east only remained open because they were protected by irregular self-defense units some affiliated to the recently formed National Guard, others not. In the town of Krasnoarmeysk, the “Dnepr” battalion, which was raised by an oligarch, opened and protected the polling station there. During the separatist plebiscites earlier this month, the battalion was accused of being responsible for an attack on locals in the town 70 kilometers from Donetsk that left two dead.
An oligarch who sided with Kiev recently, Ukraine’s richest businessman Rinat Akhmetov, a long-time Yanukovych ally, attracted the wrath of a mob of an estimated 3000 separatists in Donetsk, who marched on his house, threatening to storm it. Akhmetov, a Donetsk native who until recently had seemed to be sitting on the fence, broke definitively with the separatists two weeks ago and workers from his steel mills started to mount anti-separatist patrols in some eastern cities.
Akhmetov’s workers were not in evidence on the streets today.
In the south-eastern port city of Mariupol, 13 polling stations were not open. Some polling stations there complained they had not received sufficient ballot papers or that they came late or not at all. In some eastern towns voters crowded together for safety in groups of 20 or 30 to go to polling stations.