War-displaced Ukrainians struggle to get their vote


Kryvyi Rig (Ukraine) (AFP)

Natalya Nikitchenko was forced to flee the war in eastern Ukraine: now, like more than a million others, she is battling to get her vote in this month's presidential election.

Sitting in the gloomy shared kitchen of a shelter in Kryvyi Rig, an industrial town in the centre of Ukraine, Nikitchenko says she wants her voice to count.

But the process of registering in a new district despite the lack of information from local authorities may deny her and others their say in the March 31 poll.

Just four percent of those forced to flee their homes have so far managed to register, NGOs say. That means Ukraine's most deprived people risk being stripped of their vote in what opinion polls suggest is a far from ordinary race.

Actor Volodymyr Zelensky, whose only political experience is playing the role of president in a popular TV show, is currently favourite.

Incumbent Petro Poroshenko and ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko are projected second and third place respectively, amid public frustration with the political class.

"There's no hope for any big changes. We, internal migrants, just want to be heard because our situation now is very tough," Nikitchenko told AFP.

If she does register, the 37-year-old says she will vote for Tymoshenko as she believes the candidate would be the best placed to help her struggling family.

- Biggest crisis since Balkans -

Nikitchenko and her two children, aged seven and 16, used to live near Donetsk, now the de facto capital of the region controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

They fled in 2014, after Nikitchenko's husband disappeared and the family started getting threats from the separatists.

The United Nations says some 1.5 million people have been displaced since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and the conflict broke out in the east.

It is the biggest crisis of its kind in Europe since the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

"We have nowhere to return to, we no longer have a home," Nikitchenko said with tears in her eyes.

As a displaced person, she receives state support of 2,700 hryvnia ($100, 90 euros) per month and makes ends meet with odd jobs.

Even so, Nikitchenko does not have enough money to rent a flat for herself and instead the family live in a communal space with peeling wallpaper and rotting window panes.

- Neighbours killed by rockets -

Bureaucracy is creating a "significant barrier" to voting for people, said Oleksiy Koshel, the head of the Voters' Committee of Ukraine, an NGO that monitors election campaigns.

Internal migrants must visit a registration office twice to put in separate applications for both rounds of the presidential election.

But activists say the main barrier to participation is that the government is not providing displaced citizens with any information about how to register.

In fact, the only guidance on voting has come from international organisations and NGOs, said Daryna Tolkach, who works with migrants at the Right to Protection Fund.

And so far as local elections are concerned, displaced people are not allowed to vote at all.

There is a higher than average level of apathy among those who are having to fight for their right to vote.

A December poll showed 40 percent of the internally displaced said they wanted to vote in the presidential election, compared to around 75 percent of the general population at that time.

Which candidates stand to benefit or lose from this disadvantaged group being shut out of the voting process is not clear.

Roman Kachanov, whose family fled their home in eastern Ukraine in 2014 when falling rockets killed their neighbours, said he planned to vote but had not yet registered.

The father of five lives in a shelter for migrants in Mariupol, a coastal, government-controlled city in the south of the Donetsk region.

Kachanov said the main political issue for him is bringing an end to the conflict in his home region that has already claimed some 13,000 lives.

"We took the children under our arms and went to the closest place we could," said the 38-year-old, recalling he and his wife's escape.

But the extra paperwork he had to submit in order to be able to vote as a displaced person was a burden, he said.

"I just want to be a citizen of Ukraine -- I don't want to have this migrant status."