On eve of Ukraine election, fears about security
MARIUPOL, Ukraine - Election workers in this city of a half million on Saturday night completed preparations for Sunday's presidential election, uncertain whether voters will brave the threats of armed pro-Russian militants who have set up a base just blocks from the election commission's offices.
The outcome of the voting is not in question; polls give Petro Poroschenko, the billionaire "chocolate king," an unassailable lead among 21 candidates. The issue is whether voters in eastern Ukraine, with 15 percent of the country's 46 million population, will cast ballots.
The surprising news from a visit to Mariupol and three other towns and villages between this industrial port town and the regional capital of Donetsk is that election workers are, in fact, preparing to receive voters Sunday. Everyone is aware that an armed attack is a possibility.
"Only a fool is not afraid," Victor Ivanovich Kovta, head of the regional election commission, said.
The self-styled Donetsk People's Republic, which has fought deadly battles against Ukrainian authorities throughout the Donetsk region, sent a manifesto to the commission last week, demanding that it halt its work. But the commission is ignoring it. "The unity of Ukraine and the direction of our country" are the major questions to be decided Sunday, Kovta said.
About 300 to 400 militants have seized a bank building just 350 yards from the commission's offices and are armed with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and assault rifles, commission spokeswoman Tatiana Ignatemko said.
Ukrainian security forces are no match. "We have the police," said Kovta, rolling his eyes in disbelief. There are also private militias, now officially grouped into a national guard, but operating mostly without direction from Kiev.
At a checkpoint north of Mariupol, Ukrainian soldiers slowed cars and performed random inspections, but the operation seemed amateurish, with most soldiers lacking body armor, and no one wearing a helmet. Knots of soldiers sat or stood without weapons, watching, easy prey if a foe were to attack from both ends of the checkpoint.
In Novoazovsk, a town of 30,000, a Donetsk People's Republic flag flies over city hall, just below Ukraine's national flag, the result of two visits by large groups of the pro-Russian militants. In Telmonovo, an election official couldn't say what they would do if insurgents attacked the voting process. "We have our police," said one official who did not give his name. "But we don't know where they are."
In Starobeshovo, a village of 3,000, by contrast, the entire police department of about a dozen men gathered in front of the main polling station and appeared prepared to defend it. The mood was tense.
Deputy Interior Minister Serhiy Yarovyi said Saturday that police are ready to ensure order and security at polling stations in just nine of the 34 districts in the east.
Earlier, Volodymyr Hrinyak, chief of the public security department at the Interior Ministry, said 17 out of 34 district election commissions in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are not operating because their offices have been seized or blocked by armed men, Interfax news agency reported.
The insurgents remain defiant although Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that he is prepared to work with the election winner. On Saturday, Putin said he does not believe there will be a new Cold War with the U.S., and Russia does not want it. But he accused the West of ignoring Russia's concerns over Ukraine.
This article contains information from the Associated Press.