KYIV - Ukraine's polling stations opened Sunday in a presidential election overshadowed by violence in the country's mainly Russian-speaking east and by Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.
Ukraine election monitors say armed pro-Russian separatists are likely to prevent up to two-thirds of voters in eastern districts from choosing a new president in Sunday's election, despite calls from Kyiv for a strong voter turnout.
Armed pro-Russian insurgents have controlled about a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine for weeks, and the head of the League of Voters says he doubts that more than a third of the electorate in the Donetsk and Luhansk districts will show up. Ukraine's Interior Ministry concurred Saturday, saying voting will probably not take place in 20 of 34 districts in those border areas.
Polls elsewhere in the country of 45 million residents point to a resounding win for a pro-Western presidential candidate, and a heavy turnout.
PM addresses country
In a televised address Saturday, interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called on all Ukrainians to stop "bandits sponsored from abroad" from disrupting the polls — a blunt reference to Russia's support for separatists near the border.
He also said Ukrainians have "paid with their lives" for Ukraine's "freedom, prosperity and European future," noting that is why the choice voters make on Sunday is so important.
But forecasts for how many voters in Ukraine’s eastern regions will be able to vote have been steadily worsening in the face of ongoing violence and unrest.
While Ukraine’s League of Voters plans to field 3,000 monitors for the election — more than 1,000 foreign observers are also on hand — Oleksandr Chernenko, who heads the voters league, doubts more than a third of voters in Donetsk and Luhansk will actually cast ballots.
"That will mean 10 percent of Ukraine’s voters will have been denied the opportunity to vote,” Chernenko said. The election is widely seen as the most important since the country broke with the Soviet Union 23 years ago.
Holding up a colored map of the Donetsk region to reporters at a press conference in Ukraine’s capital, Chernenko explained that most of the province’s voting districts had been daubed red and orange to denote high danger, saying that a third of the districts were controlled by separatists and that roughly another third were at risk of total disruption.
Only a handful of districts in the west of the province appear to be trouble free.
Vladyslav Selezniov, spokesman of the Interior Ministry’s anti-terror operation, concedes security in the east is deteriorating. He says it is unlikely that voting will take place in at least 20 of 34 voting districts in Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Separatists held their own controversial plebiscites earlier this month in both provinces and have declared them independent republics. But a separatist appeal to Moscow to annex them has gone unheeded and Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that the results of Ukraine’s presidential election should be respected.
However, Ukrainian security officials say Russian fighters and guns are still being trafficked across the border and accuse Moscow of continuing to destabilize eastern Ukraine.
Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, head of Ukraine’s intelligence service, the SBU, says there are signs that Moscow is starting to withdraw more than 40,000 estimated troops massed on the border. He insists, however, that the Kremlin is still aiding the separatists.
When asked to explain the apparent contradiction, he was curt. “Ask them,” he said.
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to recognize the outcome of the election and voiced hope that Ukraine's new president will end military operations against separatists in the east.
Sunday's election could be key to stopping hostilities in the east and to helping end the biggest controversy between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
In comments to international news agencies Saturday, Putin said he did not expect a new Cold War related to the crisis in Ukraine.
Sunday's vote is widely seen as the most important election since Ukraine gained independence with the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Question of legitimacy
Chernenko of the League of Voters has ordered his monitors in the east not to take any chances regarding their personal safety. If they come under threat or feel at risk, he said, they must withdraw.
While disappointed that 10 percent of the electorate is likely to be disenfranchised over fears of polling stations seizures, threats, and the abduction of election officials, Chernenko says it won’t render the election illegitimate.
However, a computer virus with the central election commission has continued to cause problems, leaving the organization's email system paralyzed.
Officials had said the virus wouldn't pose a serious problem, but it now appears the virus may compromise electronic results.
Twenty-one candidates are competing to become Ukraine's next president. Polls show billionaire candy-maker Petro Poroshenko holds a commanding lead, but falls just short of the absolute majority needed to claim a first-round win.
Additional information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.