US hope for Ukraine elections: a government Russia can't just dismiss

Ukraine wants a large turnout Sunday, especially in the restive east, to give the new government legitimacy. So do the US and Europe. But Russia is already puncturing holes in the election process.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Ukrainian presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko speaks to his supporters during a rally in Uman, Ukraine, Tuesday. Ukraine holds a presidential election Sunday.

Ever since Ukraine’s former pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych was run out of the country by pro-Western protesters in February, Russia has referred to the interim government in Kiev as an unelected “junta.”

So the US and other Western backers of a stable and democratic Ukraine are looking to Sunday’s presidential election to give the country a leadership reflecting the will of the Ukrainian people and whose legitimacy can’t be easily dismissed.

It could be a tall order, however. While the western bulk of the country is peaceful and ready for balloting, the eastern industrial provinces where separatists have taken hold have seen renewed violence in recent days. Voting in several self-proclaimed independent “republics” is looking problematic at best.

Still, if Ukraine can pull off a largely “national” election that thousands of international observers in the country deem to be fair and free, that will go a long way to giving the country a legitimate government that the West can assist political and economically, and Russia cannot easily dismiss, regional experts say.

“The question is really what Ukraine needs from these elections, and that’s a large turnout that reflects as much as possible turnout from throughout the country, and voting that the thousands of observers in the country deem to be fair and free,” says Lee Feinstein, senior fellow in transatlantic relations at the German Marshall Fund in Washington. “If the elections are carried out in such a way that gives additional legitimacy to new Ukrainian government, that’s the most important thing.”

A key factor determining the election’s success will be Russia. The world will be watching closely for “evidence” that Russia is not acting to interfere, Mr. Feinstein says, “not trying to depress turnout or to actively encourage [the separatists] in the east.”

US senior officials are calling on Russia to exercise its influence in the east and pressure the pro-Russia separatists to allow the democratic process to take place. But Russia, while claiming it supports Sunday’s election, is also expressing strong doubts that the outcome can be considered truly “national” when security operations targeting the separatists are under way.

“What’s at stake here is whether or not Russia is going to decide to respect the right of Ukrainians to be able to decide their future,” Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier this week.

The US is also underscoring the large number of international election observers in Ukraine. Ukrainian officials claim that more than 200 election commissions are “up and running” across the country, even in some of the separatist strongholds.

“Even in Donetsk and Luhansk, 23 of 34 district election commissions are functioning despite the difficult environment,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday. She also noted that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the principal forum for dialogue between Western and Eastern Europe, has 1,000 election monitors in Ukraine.  

Russian officials, on the other hand, are sounding less optimistic about the election’s prospects. “Obviously, election of the head of state is a step in the right direction,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Thursday. “But it is vital to ensure that these elections are really nationwide,” he said, adding that an election is “hard to imagine” with “punitive operations” under way in several regions.

Not just Ukrainians, but the region – and American credibility and influence in it – have a lot riding on Sunday’s elections, some Europe analysts say. “Free and fair elections are only the first, but absolute necessary, step on Ukraine’s way toward stability and prosperity,” says Michal Baranowski, director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund.

The elections, he adds, are “also a test of Western resolve" to “show whether the EU and the United States can hold Russia to its promise not to provoke violence and let the democratic process take place throughout Ukraine.”

Feinstein says a successful election can be a “pivot point” that leads to a more stable Ukraine and a fresh, legitimate government that can begin to tackle Ukraine’s daunting problems. Such a government, he adds, is one the US and the European Union “will be able to offer more robust economic and political support,” something he says will be key to the country’s future path.

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