Russia-based Ukrainians miss out on vote amid conflict


Moscow (AFP)

Moscow-based Ukrainian programmer Ruslan Burma wants to cast his ballot for the country's president in nail-biting polls on Sunday, but he will not be able to vote.

Citing security reasons, Kiev has refused to open polling stations at five diplomatic missions in Russia, where more than 2.5 million Ukrainian nationals live.

Ukrainians go to the polls Sunday for the first round of voting.

Comedian and political novice Volodomyr Zelensky is leading in opinion polls, trailed by President Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Burma, who did not give his real name for fear of repercussions, said leaving Russia to vote would be too expensive for him.

"I will be home in spirit this Sunday," the 33-year-old, who has lived in Moscow since 2013, told AFP. "I will watch anxiously as they count the votes."

Another Moscow-based Ukrainian, Yevgen Lozitsky, said he would not be able to vote because of a business trip.

The 37-year-old bow tie-sporting senior executive said he wished there was an online voting system that would allow Ukrainians to vote from anywhere in the world.

"I want to take part in these elections, I want to have a say in shaping my country's fate," he told AFP.

Lozitsky said five Russia-based Ukrainian friends were planning to leave Russia to vote.

He himself plans to vote next month if Poroshenko -- whom he supports -- makes it to a second-round run-off.

"Under him, Ukraine pivoted towards Europe," Lozitsky said.

He and Burma said that preventing eligible voters from taking part was not fair but they declined to blame the Ukrainian authorities.

- 'Symbolic decision' -

Kiev says it was forced to close polling stations in Russia to ensure the safety of nationals and prevent arch-foe Russia from interfering in the election.

Ties between Kiev and Moscow have been wrecked since a 2014 popular uprising in Kiev ousted a Kremlin-backed regime and Russia retaliated by annexing Crimea and supporting a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.

The conflict has so far claimed some 13,000 lives.

"It's impossible to ensure an election process on the territory of the aggressor country," said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, referring to Russia.

The Ukrainian government says its nationals are free to vote in embassies in neighbouring Finland, Georgia or Kazakhstan.

Ukrainian nationals, who spoke to AFP outside the country's embassy in Moscow, scoffed at Kiev's explanations, however.

"It is safe here, just like in Ukraine -- only there's a war in the east there," said Denys Lukyanov, a 27-year-old Ukrainian.

Lykyanov said he was applying for Russian citizenship and did not plan to vote.

Some including Burma suggested the move was aimed at preventing pro-Russian voters from taking part in the election.

Klimkin insisted the closure of polling stations would not affect the result, saying just 1,100 Ukrainians voted in Russia during 2014 presidential polls.

"The decision to close down the polling stations is more symbolic in nature," said Kiev-based political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.

Many Ukrainians living in Russia come from war-torn eastern Ukraine or annexed Crimea, he said.

Ukrainians who have lived in Russia for a long time do not usually vote in Kiev polls, he added.

- 'I must vote' -

Of the roughly six million people living in Crimea and separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine, most will probably not take part either.

They need to cross into Kiev-controlled territory at least twice to register and vote, an expensive and time-consuming procedure for some.

Many will not be eligible to vote after renouncing Ukrainian citizenship.

But some Crimean Tatars -- a Muslim community that largely rejected Moscow's annexation of the peninsula -- are determined to exercise their right to vote.

"I am a citizen of Ukraine and must vote for its future president," 75-year-old Nariman Abduramanov, who lives outside Crimea's largest city Simferopol, told AFP.

Edem Dudakov, a 59-year-old resident of the town of Bakhchisaray, said he had already registered to vote.

"I will vote for Poroshenko even though I am not crazy about his economic policies," he added.

Ahead of the poll Russia's FSB security service raided the homes of Crimean Tatars and detained at least 20 people suspected of belonging to a banned Islamist group.

Crimean Tatar politician Nariman Jelyal said the arrests would not stop those who wanted to vote in the Ukrainian election.

"They are committed people who've decided to perform their civic duties despite everything," he said.