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Ukraine votes in presidential poll amid fears of violence

© Photo: AFP

Video by Robert PARSONS

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-05-25

Ukrainians are voting Sunday in the first presidential poll since an uprising toppled an elected government, sparking a crisis that has divided the nation. Reports have already emerged of pro-Russian separatists disrupting voting in the east.

Ukraine’s pro-Western transitional government in the capital of Kiev hope that Sunday’s poll will stabilise this former Soviet republic after street protests ousted Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich in February.

But in the lead-up to the vote, deadly violence in the country’s troubled east has posed a serious risk to the vote – as well as hopes for Ukraine’s future stability.

Early reports from eastern Ukraine on Sunday indicated that there were few signs of polling stations open in rebel-held areas.

There were no immediate signs of clashes on election day, but it also appeared little voting was taking place in the east: The regional administration in Donetsk said that only 426 out of 2,430 polling stations in the region were open Sunday, and none in the city of Donetsk, home to around a million people.

There was no voting in Luhansk, the center of the neighbouring province, but some stations appeared to be open across the region, according to local officials.

An Italian journalist was killed in the rebel stronghold of Slaviansk, the Italian Foreign Ministry announced on Sunday. Andrea Ronchelli, who Italian media reports said was a freelance photographer, was killed along with a Russian national but his body had not yet been formally identified, according to the ministry statement.

Election officials in ‘despair’

Reporting from Donetsk on the eve of the election, FRANCE 24’s Robert Parsons said there were security concerns over the vote in the eastern industrial city. “We spoke to election officials trying to organise the vote here. Most of them are in a state of despair.

"Some of them have been kidnapped, many of them have been threatened,” explained Parsons. “They expect there will be violence at all the [polling] stations. Even if they do manage to open the stations – and that’s in doubt – people are extremely fearful.”

On Saturday, a Ukrainian Interior Ministry official said 17 out of 34 district election commissions in Donetsk and another eastern region of Luhansk are not operating because their offices have either been seized or blocked by armed men.

The Interior Ministry admission came a day after pro-Russian separatists and a Ukrainian militia group clashed in eastern Ukraine, leaving at least two dead. An attack on Ukrainian troops the previous day killed 17 soldiers, according to officials.

Pro-Russia separatists have effectively controlled parts of Ukraine for weeks. Following their declaration of independence earlier this month, they pledged to derail the presidential poll, which they regard as an election in “a neighbouring country.''

Is Moscow talking to Kiev behind the scenes?

The international community is closely monitoring Sunday’s vote, with the US warning Russia that Washington will impose broader economic and industrial sanctions, with EU support, if Moscow interferes in the presidential poll.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that he would accept the results of the election. “We will treat the choice of the Ukrainian people with respect,” he told foreign and Russian businessmen at an international economic forum in St. Petersburg on Friday.

But the US has voiced skepticism over Putin’s comments, with US State Department spokeswoman Marie Haff noting that Russian officials “need to call on the separatists that they have influence with to not try to disrupt the election.”

From the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, Parsons noted that there’s little doubt Moscow holds considerable influence among the pro-Russian groups in eastern Ukraine.

“The fact is, without Russia’s support, there’s very little they can hope to achieve. If Russia really does pull the rug on the separatists, they’re going to be forced at some stage, I think, to talk to Kiev,” said Parsons. “I suspect that behind the scenes, the Russians are talking to Kiev and saying, ‘look, after the elections, there has to be serious consideration of a new constitution in which serious autonomy is granted to this part of the country.”

The chocolate king, comeback kid and the contender

While the international spotlight has been trained on eastern Ukraine, the country’s western region has been looking forward to Sunday’s vote, where the race has been dominated by “the chocolate king, the comeback kid and the contender”.

The three top presidential hopefuls on the list of 21 candidates include billionaire candy-magnate Petro Poroshenko, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Serhiy Tihipko, a politician and financial expert who previously served as head of the country’s central bank.

Polls show Poroshenko with a commanding lead but falling short of the absolute majority needed to win in the first round. His nearest challenger Tymoshenko is a divisive figure in Ukraine and has been polling at around 6 percent.

If no candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held June 15, with polls indicating that Poroshenko would win that contest.

(FRANCE24 with AP)

Date created : 2014-05-25

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