Threats aim to derail Ukraine's presidential vote

2014-05-19 22:00
(Nicholas Kamm, AFP)

(Nicholas Kamm, AFP)

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Donetsk - The 38-year-old mother of two insisted on meeting in a nondescript courtyard on the outskirts of Ukraine's eastern city of Donetsk. Once there, she sat down and burst into tears.

"Please don't mention my last name," she begged. "I, my family, we have received death threats. They told us they know all our names."

The woman is not a mafia turncoat or a government whistleblower, but a Ukrainian schoolteacher named Antonina. She is among thousands of teachers appointed to local election boards in Ukraine now unwittingly thrust onto the front lines of a brutal confrontation that risks tipping the country into civil war.

Ukraine is holding a presidential election on Sunday, but it has become downright dangerous for many in the east to be associated with the vote, since the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence last week.

Ukrainian police and election officials accuse pro-Russia gunmen there of seizing election commission offices and threatening members in an effort to derail the presidential vote.

The struggling interim government in Kiev has been counting on the presidential election to install a leader who would be seen as a legitimate successor to Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in February after months of street protests.

But the long-anticipated election may not be considered legitimate by Russia or Ukrainians themselves if people in a large part of the country are unable or unwilling to cast their ballots.

Nearly 15% of Ukraine's population lives on territory now largely controlled by pro-Russia militias.

"No one is going to vote because no one wants to get a bullet in their forehead," said 68-year-old Donetsk resident Dmytro Zarubo. "We've been threatened with this."

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases and praised the launch of a dialogue between the Ukrainian government and its opponents.

He has called Ukraine's presidential election "a step in the right direction" but if Russia is counselling the separatists to allow the vote to go forward, there's no evidence of that on the ground.

Other senior Russian officials have signalled the vote would be considered illegitimate because Ukrainian troops are still fighting some eastern separatists.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has sent observers to monitor Ukraine's presidential election, says there has been no significant campaigning in the Donetsk or Luhansk regions or in the neighbouring Kharkiv region, where separatist sentiments are also strong.

Ukraine election officials say armed men have occupied election commission offices in the east.

Read more on:    russia  |  ukraine

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