KIEV/DONETSK, UKRAINE – Ukraine was counting down Saturday to a presidential election seen as crucial to its very survival after months of turmoil that has driven the country to the brink of civil war.
Sunday’s vote comes with tensions running high after a bloody upsurge in fighting in the east, where pro-Russian separatists have launched an insurgency against central government rule.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk issued an appeal for people to turn out to “defend Ukraine” despite threats by the insurgents to disrupt the election in restive areas under their control.
In what could be a significant move in Ukraine’s bitter confrontation with its former masters in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared on Friday that he would respect the outcome of the vote. Putin has in the past given only grudging backing to what Kiev and the West hope will restore stability after months of crisis sparked by the toppling of Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president in February that later saw Russia annex Crimea and pro-Moscow rebels take up arms in the industrial east.
“We understand that the people of Ukraine want their country to emerge from this crisis,” Putin said at an economic forum in Saint Petersburg. “We will treat their choice with respect.
“We are today working with those people who control the government and after the election we will of course work with the newly elected authorities.”
But he said Ukraine had descended into “chaos and full-scale civil war,” accusing the United States of causing the crisis by backing the overthrow of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled in February after months of sometimes bloody pro-EU street protests.
The days before the election have been blighted by a resurgence in deadly fighting between the Ukraine military and rebels who have declared independence in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Seven people were killed outside Donetsk on Friday, a day after the deaths of 19 soldiers in the heaviest loss for the Ukraine military since the conflict erupted in early April. About 150 people have been killed in the east since then, according to an AFP tally based on U.N. and Ukrainian government figures.
Sunday’s vote is seen as the most crucial since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, with the country not only battling to stay united but also to stave off threatened bankruptcy and fears that Russia could cut off vital gas supplies.
Billionaire chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko is the favorite, enjoying a near 30-point lead over former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, but opinion polls say the vote is likely to go to a runoff on June 15.
The authorities are mobilizing more than 75,000 police and volunteers to try to ensure security on polling day, alongside around 1,200 international observers.
“This will be the expression of the will of Ukrainians from the west, east, north and south,” Yatsenyuk said in a televised address. “I want to assure our fellow countrymen in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions who will be prevented from coming to their polling stations by the war unleashed against Ukraine that the bandits have little time left to terrorize your regions.”
But voting is unlikely to take place in several places in the east, where election officials have reported numerous cases of intimidation and attacks by rebels.
In Makiivka, just to the east of Donetsk, polling station head Tetyana Fyodorovna said preparations had been halted after armed men seized the district election commission Friday. “We were getting ready for the vote but now the elections are not going to happen here,” she said by telephone.
However, in another move that could ease the worst post-Cold War standoff between Moscow and the West, Putin earlier in the week ordered the withdrawal of some 40,000 troops whose presence along Ukraine’s border was causing jitters particularly among former Soviet satellites. The head of Russia’s army said the pullback could take at least 20 days.
The United States responded with caution to Putin’s election comments, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying, “We would welcome an indication from Russia that they would accept the results of a free and fair and democratic election in Ukraine.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya also said Putin’s words needed to be followed by “specific actions.”
Washington and its European allies, which see Russia’s hand directing the insurgency, have threatened more sanctions if Moscow disrupts the vote, adding to punitive measures imposed after the seizure of Crimea in March. But Putin brushed off the threats, saying sanctions will “boomerang” on the West, and some European nations are wary of the impact further measures against Moscow could have on their own economies.