x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Violence looms over Ukraine election

Armed guards protect polling stations as pro-Russian separatists threaten to disrupt the vote in towns and cities they control in the industrial east.

A Pro-Russian militant guards a checkpoint in Semyonovka village, outside Slaviansk, Ukraine, on Saturday. Maxim Shipenkov / EPA
A Pro-Russian militant guards a checkpoint in Semyonovka village, outside Slaviansk, Ukraine, on Saturday. Maxim Shipenkov / EPA

DONETSK, Ukraine // “We’re in a war situation,” says one of the deliverymen bringing ballot papers in under armed guard to a polling station in the eastern Ukrainian town of Dobropillya.

“There is more security this time,” he adds.

Ukraine goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president, but pro-Russian separatists have threatened disrupt the vote in towns and cities they control in the industrial east.

“We intend to make sure that voting does not take place here on our territory. If necessary we will revert to the use of force,” said Denis Pushilin, a top leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.

“We have the right to do so because our countrymen are dying here every day,” he said.

The Kiev authorities have warned they may not be able to ensure voting takes place across the east, where there are already numerous reports of militants intimidating election workers and seizing polling stations.

Security concerns have also been heightened after a deadly surge in violence this week, with well over two dozen people – perhaps many more – killed in fighting between Ukrainian forces and the rebels.

In Dobropillya, the ballot papers arrived in a funeral van along with a security guard carrying an AK-47 rifle and were carried into the town hall basement by local election workers.

A few dozen unarmed policemen stood around nearby, looking bored.

“The elections will definitely take place here,” said Yelena Ganicheva, head of the election commission in Dopropillya, which lies some 100 kilometres from Donetsk and is under Kiev’s control.

Inside the town hall, a Ukrainian flag flying from the roof, workers from the district election commission were filling in forms as they awaited the delivery of the ballot papers.

Around the district covering some 80 polling stations almost all are planning to operate, except in separatist-controlled Druzhkivka where the election commission was disbanded.

“The voting booths are in place, the ballot boxes are there,” said Ms Ganicheva.

But in the town of Makiivka, just to the east of Donetsk, polling station head Tetyana Fyodorovna said preparations had been halted after armed men seized the district election commission on Friday.

“We were getting ready for the vote but now the elections are not going to happen here,” she said by phone.

In the main city of Donetsk and neighbouring towns in the heart of eastern Ukraine’s coal and steel industry, most of the campaign posters are for Mikailo Dobkin, a hardliner standing for the Regions Party of ousted pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich.

But quite often the posters are vandalised, splattered with mud or the eyes of the candidates torn out.

At a school in central Donetsk that should be a polling station, caretaker Olga Viktorovna showed an empty hall where there were no visible preparations.

“We have always held presidential and local elections here, but this time there will not be anything it seems,” she said.

* Agence France-Presse