May 23, 2014

Presidential Elections: Eastern Ukraine under Fear and Intimidation

Reuters/Scanpix
A military personnel member, believed to be a Russian serviceman, stands guard outside the territory of a Ukrainian military unit in the village of Perevalnoye outside Simferopol March 2, 2014.
A military personnel member, believed to be a Russian serviceman, stands guard outside the territory of a Ukrainian military unit in the village of Perevalnoye outside Simferopol March 2, 2014.

DONETSK, May 23 – Two days before the Ukrainian presidential election, outside intimidation has virtually silenced the region. The various gangs of separatists calling themselves the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk are doing their best to prevent the election from happening. There are 34 district election committees in the region; almost all have been attacked, with equipment confiscated, and voter lists destroyed. There has been major difficulty in staffing these committees after Kremlin-backed gunmen began kidnapping election officials and threatening others in an effort to derail the presidential vote.

DONETSK, May 23 – Two days before the Ukrainian presidential election, outside intimidation has virtually silenced the region. The various gangs of separatists calling themselves the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk are doing their best to prevent the election from happening. There are 34 district election committees in the region; almost all have been attacked, with equipment confiscated, and voter lists destroyed. There has been major difficulty in staffing these committees after Kremlin-backed gunmen began kidnapping election officials and threatening others in an effort to derail the presidential vote.

To its credit, the Ukrainian government has at least attempted to protect the right to vote under a recently-adopted law on elections. This year Ukrainians from occupied Crimea and affected regions of Eastern Ukraine can vote at polling stations outside their registered places of residence if they applied to do so before May. Yet, while an important symbolic gesture, the numbers of such voters—some 6,000 in Crimea and about 171,000 from other parts of Ukraine—will not be central to the outcome of the election, thereby demonstrating the priority of securing local polling offices from threats on the ground.
The risk that the committees won’t be able to open polling stations in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts on Sunday morning places nearly 14.5% percent of Ukraine’s population—a substantial part of the Ukrainian electorate— in peril of losing the right to vote on territory now largely controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists. Donetsk steel magnate (and Ukraine’s richest businessman) Rinat Akhmetov, who has stood up to the so-called people’s republics, claimed that the separatists are “impostors who have taken the entire Donbas hostage and are terrorizing it”. There is none of the usual pre-election spirit in the air in Donetsk or elsewhere in the region, with almost no active campaigns, billboards, or discussions. Only two of the 21 candidates have placed billboards or placards on the streets of Donetsk: the Party of Regions’ Mykhailo Dobkin, the poorest-polling candidate that the party has ever nominated for president, and Serhiy Tihipko, a banker and businessman who performed relatively strongly in the last presidential campaign in 2009-10. According to provisional polls, these two are behind national frontrunner Petro Poroshenko. Yet the prevailing sentiment in the region is not in favor of any particular candidate, but rather a fear of voting at all rather than risk the attacks “promised” by the separatists.
The interim government has already declared its readiness to make a final breakthrough and free the region from the groups of Kremlin-backed gunmen. Thus, in the period after the election, Ukraine’s security forces are likely to continue their push—supported by the volunteer battalions Dnipro, Donbas-1 and Donbas 2, which have thus far shown some success at reestablishing order in the region while deterring further attacks. Accordingly, May 25 marks not only a metaphorical battle between candidates “fighting” to become president, but also the continuation of a literal battle for the future territorial integrity of Ukraine.

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