An opinion poll released Wednesday by a U.S. democracy group finds widespread doubts and worries among Ukrainians who think their country is in the grip of chaos and don't believe the government is effective.
The poll was carried out by the Washington-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES)
, which has been conducting polls in Ukraine regularly since 1994.
The pro-democracy and election-assistance non-profit receives most of its funding from USAID and the United Nations.
It shows 80 percent of respondents from Ukraine’s troubled east said they considered the Western-oriented interim government in Kyiv, formed after the February ouster of Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych, illegitimate.
That's a much higher percentage than anywhere else in the country, according to the poll.
The poll also finds that Ukrainians in the mostly Russian-speaking east also are far less convinced than their compatriots that the May 25 presidential elections will be fair.
Almost half said they thought the elections would lack integrity and be so flawed that the results would not be legitimate.
Pro-Russian agitation and estrangement from Kyiv in the east is tied closely with economic hardship and fear about job prospects, according to Rakesh Sharma, director of research at IFES.
“The underlying issue is economic in nature because in the east… people were asking why should they be closer to Europe and a lot of their anxiety about association with the European Union came down to a fear that as their local economy is so tied to Russia, they will be the ones to suffer,” he said.
“There was definitely an economic rationale being given,” he added.
Self-expression versus terrorism
The polling data shows that other issues also fuel the agitation, although concern about suppression of the Russian language, one of the issues frequently raised by Moscow and cited by pro-Russia separatists, apparently isn’t one of them.
A majority of those polled in the east said they didn’t feel the Russian language was being discriminated against.
Sharma said the focus groups participating in the poll instead showed deep frustration with the way Yanukovych’s government, which had its power base in Ukraine’s east, was ousted by pro-European activists in the Maidan, Kyiv’s central plaza.
“In the focus groups people would say, ‘when people march in the Maidan in Kyiv to throw Yanukovych out, it is called self-expression, [but] when people do it here they are called separatists and terrorists,'" Sharma said.
"They feel they have legitimate grievances that are not being addressed by the government,” he said.
In the polling data the interim government of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is seen by eastern Ukrainians as representing western Ukraine and Ukrainian nationalists.
The poll confirms fears that Yatsenyuk and his ministers have bungled east Ukraine.
Blaming Yatsenyuk and his ministers for ineffectively handling the crisis in east Ukraine, a growing chorus of analysts and pro-Kyiv activists in the east are arguing the government should stop its haphazard military campaign to combat separatists.
U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt added his voice to the chorus Tuesday saying at a press conference that he had advised Kyiv against the use of force to drive separatists out of more than 30 seized government buildings in nearly a dozen cities and towns in east Ukraine.
Critics are faulting the government for failing to appoint prominent easterners to the cabinet.
They also say that economic packages should have been quickly tailored for towns and regions in the east to relieve economic hardship.
But austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund for a $20 billion loan would have likely complicated such efforts.
A Donetsk pro-Ukraine activist and ethnic Russian student, worries the Kyiv government doesn’t understand the mentality of eastern Ukrainians.
“This really is a distinct region,” she said. “Our mentality is different from Kyiv and the West and the government has to think more about how it talks to the east."
Taken for granted
Other activists have argued the interim government should tone down its pro-European rhetoric, worrying that it is only fueling eastern discontent, allowing Moscow-backed separatists to exploit the disaffection.
And activists criticize the Kyiv government for failing to do more to counter Kremlin propaganda in a region where many watch Russian television much more than Ukrainian programming.
Top government officials have been wary of visiting the east – thus only confirming suspicions in the region that they take the industrial Donbas region for granted and favor the west of the country.
One of the few politicians to set himself apart has been Economic Development Minister Pavlo Sheremeta, a U.S.-educated former think tank chief.
He has been trying to press the case at small town-hall meetings in Donetsk and other eastern cities that the economic future of the country can be rosy, if it gets the chance to build an innovative, dynamic and diverse economy.
The IFES poll not only highlights the scale of the challenges facing the interim government in the east, but also shows that in all regions of the country there is worry that Ukraine is badly divided.
Seventy three percent of respondents nationwide said the country is fractured, although three in four of those polled believe the rupture is reparable.
More than two-thirds of participants said the country was currently chaotic and 72 percent expressed little confidence in the Yatsenyuk government, saying they felt it was unable to significantly control the problems Ukraine faces.
The IFES poll was conducted April 8-15 with 2,039 people.