DONETSK, UKRAINE— In eastern Ukraine, polling workers are struggling to prepare for Sunday’s general election, seen as a key step in efforts to stabilize the country.
Their efforts were marred Thursday by some of the bloodiest fighting in recent days, when pro-Russian separatists attacked a government checkpoint near the town of Volnovakha, leaving 13 Ukrainian soldiers dead and 32 injured.
In the city of Donetsk, School 17 was the only polling station a VOA team could find where preparations were actually taking place. There are now serious doubts among local election monitors as to whether the vote will go ahead here.
Ten minutes before I arrived with an interpreter, pro-Russian separatists had delivered a letter instructing all election commissions inside the territory of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic to cease their activities.
But Yevgeny Viprak, the head of the polling station, said he didn't recognize the letter’s legality.
“I didn't get any document from the district election commission telling us to stop our work,” Viprak said. “Therefore, I have enough reason to continue working in the same way as we were before. I don't have any directives to stop our work and close the polling station.”
A chill in preparations
His defiance was short-lived. Moments later, two separatists carrying pistols and knives suddenly burst in and stopped us from filming.
“So you are representative of Donetsk People’s Republic?” my interpreter asked in Russian.
“Yes,” one of the men answered.
“Can we film you?”
We secretly kept the camera rolling as the two men instructed staff to shut down the station.
“How can I stop work?” asked Inna Maschenskaya, a polling station secretary. “I am working here.”
“That's not my problem,” a separatist responded. “This is now the Donetsk People's Republic.”
“How can we just quit?” Maschenskaya asked again.
“Just get up and say goodbye.”
The men also alleged that Ukrainian tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, who recently condemned the separatists, was paying for the election. They then made veiled threats that he was putting election workers in danger.
“I will explain to you one more time,” a separatist said in Russian. “If on the 25th of May the man who decided to pay for the elections decides to throw you into the meat grinder, it will be his problem, not mine.”
An intimidating presence
I stopped recording, fearing that I would be caught and my footage confiscated. Off camera, the argument got more heated and the men tore up some election materials and threw them on the floor. Then they gathered all the materials that were lying around and took them away, leaving the room empty.
Viprak sounded forlorn. “All of this has been done with pressure,” he said. “I couldn't make any counter arguments from our side. We were forced to obey these orders.”
Election monitors have said that hardly any polling stations in the city are ready and that some staff members are too afraid to even answer their phones.
In the current climate, it seems hard to imagine that Sunday's election will run smoothly.