Amid violence, Ukrainians hope to vote their way out of turmoil

Ukrainians, exhausted and worried after months of political upheaval and violence, are eager to have an elected president again who can set the country on a path forward. 

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church broke ground on a new church in Kiev today, as the country heads to the polls in what many say is it's most important election ever. Priest Konstantin Kvatyrko (not pictured) says Ukraine needs a new beginning for peace.

As Ukrainians head to the polls today to attempt to pull their country out of political turmoil, the entire nation is on edge – even at a barren patch of land in Kiev where one ochre-colored stone has just been laid.

On the west bank of Kiev's Dnieper River, where highrises from the Soviet era dominate the skyline, a group of faithful from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church gather in the glare of midday sun to witness the groundbreaking of a new cathedral to replace one destroyed in 1937.

Priest Konstantin Kvatyrko says it is coincidence that the inauguration takes place on the day of this extraordinary election, called early after the nation’s president was swept out of office, setting off a dangerous power struggle within Ukraine and beyond and unleashing violence that has stunned the nation.

But the symbolism, he says, is clear. “I hope that these two events bring us new beginnings,” he says, dressed in a thick black robe, as he gives the sign of the cross. “We are praying for the peace of this country.”

A few blocks away, long queues formed in the many polling stations set up in one of the densest areas of the capital. The sweltering waits did nothing to deter voters like Vladimir Kosenko, who works in the insurance industry. Waiting with his 12-year-old daughter, he says he is voting for the survival of his country. "With this vote we are hoping for the end of the conflict and for a healthier country," he says.

But tensions in eastern Ukraine threaten to undermine the election, billed as the most important in the nation's history. Polling stations were closed down and those who wished to vote were intimidated into staying home. Men bearing machine guns set up checkpoints across the city of Donetsk, fraying nerves and indicating that an end to conflict is unlikely nowhere near.

In an impassioned appeal on television Saturday night, acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk called on all Ukrainians who can to vote in a show of unity.

“I want to assure our fellow countrymen from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, who will not be able to vote because of the war, that criminals won’t terrorize your land for long,” Mr. Yatsenyuk said.

A cycle of upheaval

Today's vote is seen as the only way to get Ukraine, mired in a vicious cycle of economic and political upheaval, beyond crisis. 

Ukraine was thrust into chaos in February, after mass protests led to the ouster of the Kremlin-backed leader, Viktor Yanukovych. His dismissal of a trade and political association deal with the European Union angered Ukrainians who say their future is with Europe.

While his ouster was widely supported in the capital and western part of the country, those in the industrial east and south distrusted the interim government. Russian President Vladimir Putin called the ouster a coup and the acting leaders “fascists.”

In the months since, Ukraine has been rocked by the highest level of violence since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, with armed separatists, security forces, and protesters all killed in the fighting. 

Mr. Putin annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula – provoking worldwide condemnation – and was accused of stoking tensions in parts of Ukraine, especially Donetsk and Luhansk. Separatists in those two regions held referendums on May 11 and declared themselves sovereign nations. Russia has not moved to interfere as it did in Crimea, where no vote was held Sunday.

Voting to move on

Campaigning itself has been muted. In Kiev, there are hardly any signs of an election underway. That’s in part because residents say they are tired and saddened after tense and unpredictable months in the Maidan, the central square where protests began and turned deadly. 

It’s also because the election is in many ways already decided. Voters seem to care more about having an elected president again than who actually wins. 

The clear frontrunner is Petro Poroshenko, also known as the "chocolate king" for his lucrative candy company. Polling five times higher than his nearest rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, his win is all but guaranteed.  

As a former political leader and one of the richest men in the country, Mr. Poroshenko is not overwhelmingly popular, but many voters said they were casting votes for him to avoid prolonging the crisis with a runoff on June 15.

"I am not happy about any of the presidential candidates," says Elena Kulakevich, a voter in Kiev. If the country weren't in crisis, she says she wouldn't vote at all.

Fear in the east

Putin has said he will support today’s race, but there are still doubts that he, or rebels in the east, will accept the results. Authorities in Kiev say only 20 percent of stations in Donetsk and Luhansk are open. 

It is unclear how many residents actually side with separatist actions in those areas. Many in the east say they are determined to cast votes so that elections are not declared illegitimate. Residents of Donetsk city, with a population of about 1 million, headed to neighboring towns where separatists have not been able to shut down polling stations. 

In Krasnoarmiisk, a mining town of about 80,000, all polling stations seemed to be functioning today. "We just need this election to be accepted so we can get on and have a legitimate power in Kiev," says Olga Kvitka, a poll worker there. "It's just total chaos now Ukraine, you see? They even closed our banks. We don't know if we'll get paid even for our work now."

But a clear majority stayed away.  Daniel Antonchick, from the town of Kramatorsk, where elections are not being held, says that voting would mean risking his life. “No one in my city would do that,” he says in Donetsk.

At the church ceremony in Kiev, Tatiana Baranchuk, who attended with her husband, says she is praying for the entire nation, but especially the east.

"We are worried about the situation in the east, where people are frightened and worried about their lives," she says.

Priest Kvatyrko says construction of the cathedral, which will eventually hold 1,000 people, is significant because the original was torn down by Soviet atheists in between the two world wars. The groundbreaking, he says, is a new page for the history of the cathedral. And this election, he hopes, “will turn a new page for Ukraine.”

Sabra Ayres contributed reporting from Donetsk, Ukraine.

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