DONETSK, UKRAINE – From a cramped office in residential Donetsk, election officials Sunday frantically worked to prepare for next Sunday’s Ukraine presidential poll, despite what they described as intimidation and threats from pro-Russian separatists.
By Monday morning, their resolve broken, they had shut down their office.
“We’re not working, out of safety concerns,” said Volodymyr Klotsky, a member of election commission No. 43, adding that he and his colleagues had reluctantly taken the decision after “terrorists” had seized the offices of another voting commission nearby.
Klotsky’s commission had been the last of five such election bodies opened in the eastern Ukrainian city, an industrial hub of about 1 million, which is now the center of the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic.”
The separatists’ revolt, fueled by heady Russian propaganda, was focused at several points in the east following the overthrow of Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, and the annexation by Russia of Crimea.
Nonetheless, electoral authorities had set up Klotsky and others like him to do their best to prepare for an election that Kiev’s pro-Western rulers hope will legitimize government after street revolts that forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia.
With most of Donetsk’s strategic points in separatist hands, this had always been a distant hope in this part of Ukraine. The predicament of Klotsky and his colleagues is further evidence of the separatists’ determination to disrupt the election.
Speaking on Sunday before the decision to close up shop, Klotsky said unknown men had appeared in his office twice in the past two weeks, stealing computers and threatening staff if they did not leave.
“We fear only one thing,” Klotsky said then.
“It is the interference of these people, who have grabbed the region by force, who have placed checkpoints around the city to protect it from something. We are worried that perhaps tomorrow, perhaps now, or perhaps on election day, they will come and physically stop our work,” he said.
Later on Monday, Klotsky was out of reach at a police station. It was not clear why.
“We have information on a number of presidents and of vice presidents of electoral commissions being abducted, being maltreated, with implications for a number of other members of the commissions,” Ivan Simonovic, U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights, said in Kiev on Monday.
“There is intimidation,” he said, referring to wider eastern Ukraine. “A lot of people are preparing to leave, not only because of security but because of their social and economic prospects. It may be a big exodus, and it’s going to be a major challenge.”
Kiev authorities were adamant the election will go ahead despite the difficulties.
“We realize, and are not deceiving anyone about this, that it will be impossible to hold normal elections over the huge territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said Monday, referring to the neighboring region of Luhansk where separatists also occupy key buildings.
Avakov accused separatists of carrying out “bandit actions” aimed at disrupting the polls.
“But elections will take place in Ukraine all the same, despite the wishes of the terrorists to prevent them, even if they are disrupted over several parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” Avakov told a news conference.
Donetsk region — as opposed to the city — accounts for an electorate of 3.3 million — just over 9 percent of the national voter base of 35.5 million. With Luhansk, the two regions account for 14.3 percent.
Other flash points where polling booths could be disrupted include the towns of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, which have seen some of the worst clashes between separatists and the Ukrainian Army.
Current opinion polls make confectionery magnate Petro Poroshenko a comfortable front-runner, well ahead of second-placed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. One poll indicates Poroshenko might even get more than 50 percent and so be elected in the first round.
Klotsky’s electoral commission covers around 150,000 voters in the city and 99 polling stations, which are usually installed in schools. With their work incomplete, it is unlikely the vote there will be recognized as valid.
The commission’s office is just 10 minutes’ drive from central Donetsk, where separatists hold the huge Soviet-era district administration building, barricaded and guarded by armed men in a variety of army fatigues and black masks.
For them and their supporters in Donetsk, the election is irrelevant.
“This election is a joke,” said a 27-year-old junior leader of separatists, whose team guards an entrance to the district administration building. He gives only his nickname, “Naruto,” which is the name of the hero of an eponymous Japanese manga.
Naruto feels that his political choices have been constantly ignored or overturned by Kiev and Ukrainian politicians and protesters from the mainly Ukrainian-speaking west.
“I’m not some crazy ex-military guy. On the Maidan (Kiev’s Independence Square) they say we are animals, we don’t know about freedom. But I know how people live here. . . . I am fighting for human rights.”