In the shadow of wars, both civil and cold, Ukrainians head to the polls

Ukrainians will choose a new president today, against the backdrop of Europe's worst geopolitical crisis in a generation.

David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters
People walk at the Independence Square, or the 'Maidan,' in Kiev, Ukraine, on Friday. Today’s presidential election in Ukraine will have ramifications felt well beyond this post-Soviet state, as the country's crisis, has turned into the biggest geopolitical showdown in a generation.

The barricades that still mar Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan – shoulder-high stacks of bricks, piles of rubber tires, burned out sand bags – were built as a divide between the Ukrainian people and their Kremlin-backed president last year.

But in the past six months these fissures have spread – quickly and deeply – well beyond this iconic square, stunning the world as they caused relations to crumble between regions of Ukraine, between Ukraine and Russia, and finally between geopolitical blocs from Washington to Moscow.

Now, as Ukrainians head to the polls today, they seek to put their country on more stable footing, with a newly elected leader who will seek common ground between pro-European Ukrainians and those, largely in the south and east, who distrust Kiev’s mandate.

But they won’t be the only ones watching to see that violence or widespread abstention doesn’t undermine this vote. Poles, who have been watching with suspicion of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, will be glued to their TVs. Russia will be watching to see that the vote, the outcome of a crisis it blames squarely on the West, is carried out fairly in eastern Ukraine, where it wields more clout. American senators, convinced that the East and West are entering another cold war, have a stake too. Even Prince Charles waded into the conflict recently when he compared Mr. Putin’s actions in Ukraine to those of Adolf Hitler, sparking an international row.

In fact, today’s vote will have ramifications felt well beyond this post-Soviet state. Russia’s moves in Ukraine, starting with the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in the wake of domestic strife in Ukraine, have turned the crisis into the biggest geopolitical showdown in a generation. And with more than 1,000 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the country, it will be one of the most watched elections in European history.

“The Ukraine question is also [a question] of the stability in Europe as a whole,” says Wolfgang Richter, a former OSCE observer who is today a security expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “We speak of the choice between long-term confrontation or a return to pan-European security.”

Ukrainians Sunday will be choosing among nearly two dozen candidates for president. Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire known as the “Chocolate King,” is the clear frontrunner, with five times as many supporters as his nearest rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, according to polls.

The election's importance

But who wins this race matters in many ways less than that a race takes place. Both in Ukraine and outside, many consider illegitimate the interim government, which filled the political vacuum left by former President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.

The key question hanging over elections is whether rebels in the east will prevent the vote from happening there. After Crimea's annexation, separatists in two eastern regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, held their own referendums on May 11, declared sovereignty, and said the national vote will not take place. Clashes on Thursday, in which more than a dozen Ukrainian servicemen were killed, ratcheted up of tensions ahead of the vote. The United Nations earlier said the crisis has taken 120 lives.

Authorities in Kiev told journalists Friday that efforts to sabotage the election have been thwarted but that they remain on guard. “Armed groups which are operating in the east are trying all they can to stop the electoral process. They are seizing buildings, wrecking technology, and abducting people in efforts to intimidate people," said deputy Ukrainian prosecutor general Mykola Holomsha.

A mixture of intimidation and distrust, and a dose of voter apathy, appear to have given the representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic, as the separatists call their region, what they want — that no Kiev-organized election will be successful in their territory. “Even if they elections do go ahead here, I’m not sure that everything will go smoothly and without provocation,” says Victoria Zablodsky, on the streets of Donetsk on Friday. “I'm not sure that I would go to vote. Among the candidates, I don’t see anyone who would be able to represent everyone and would be worthy of being called ‘president.’”

“I want to vote, but we are hearing about bombings and so I’m not sure I will even take the chance,” says Tatiana Tokarev. “I think that the elections will be held in certain areas, but not in a massive organized way, and I think those results will be written off as falsified.”

Their doubts mark a disturbing development for the West, which maintains that the vote is the only way to move forward, threatening tougher sanctions on Mr. Putin if Russia is seen to stoke tensions on election day.

In geopolitical shadow

In some ways, election day itself is an afterthought. Russia has blamed Europe and the US for pushing Ukraine westward, ignoring Ukrainians who want to stay in Russia’s sphere. The West blames Russia for a breach of international law in redrawing European territory. 

“Once Putin became engaged, this was no longer about Ukraine,” says Vira Nanivska, honorary president of the International Center for Policy Studies in Kiev.

Jan Kotovich, a university student in Kiev studying economics, agrees, saying that Russia and the West have engaged in a political war that has nothing to do with Ukraine. “But it turned the world’s attention to Ukraine,” he says. “That’s a good thing.”

In Kiev, it’s nearly impossible to find those who side with Russia. And many residents hope this race, even if not the central narrative, moves them closer to the West. Ms. Nanivska thinks that Ukraine’s domestic politics will impact the larger geopolitical balance in a way that she believes is in both in the West and Ukraine's interest. With a new government in place and the West's help on reforms to address endemic corruption, she says Ukraine can become “a pillar of democracy,” she says, “in post-Soviet states.”

Or as Vadim Karasov, a Ukrainian political analyst, puts it at a restaurant in Kiev: “The next president will be the fifth president of post-Soviet Ukraine,” he says, “but the first president of the new Ukraine.”

• Sabra Ayres contributed reporting from Donetsk, Ukraine.

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