Death Threats Haunt Eastern Ukraine as Gunmen Target Vote

Andriy, a young entrepreneur from Slovyansk, won’t be voting in this weekend’s presidential election for fear masked gunmen who’ve taken over the small Ukrainian city will slay anyone who dares try.

Separatists intent on abandoning Ukraine for Russia want to torpedo the ballot and have overrun half of the electoral offices in the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions, together known as Donbas. Tactics include abducting voting officials and issuing death threats, the Electoral Commission says. Thirteen servicemen died yesterday amid a push to repel the militants.

“You can be killed for showing a position that’s different from them,” said Andriy, who asked that only his first name be used for fear of reprisals. “People have been killed here just because they brought some food to Ukrainian soldiers.”

Ukraine’s government, whose legitimacy is rejected by Russia, is pinning its hopes on the May 25 election producing an undisputed successor to ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. While Russia has denied accusations it’s instigating the separatist unrest, the U.S. and the European Union say they’ll stiffen sanctions should the ballot be disrupted.

At the heart of the insurgency is Slovyansk, where some residents fume that the pro-European movement that toppled Donbas native Yanukovych is ignoring their interests. The Kiev revolt preceded the violence that’s spread to 15 cities and left dozens dead.

Election Boycott

“I won’t vote because elections won’t be held here,” said Serhiy, 45, an entrepreneur who requested his last name be withheld out of fear for his safety. “Even if they go ahead, I won’t take part because I don’t see a decent candidate.”

Like others who sympathize with the separatists, he’s ready for the region to follow in the footsteps of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by President Vladimir Putin in March. Donetsk and Luhansk held referendums on independence on May 11. The votes were dismissed by the government in Kiev, the U.S. and the EU as illegal and manipulated.

More than half of Donbas’s 5.1 million voters, a seventh of Ukraine’s electorate, will shun the presidential ballot, according to a May 14-18 poll by the Kiev-based Razumkov Center and Democratic Initiatives Foundation. That risks undermining the future administration in the eyes of Russia, whose Premier Dmitry Medvedev said this week that the absence of some regions from voting would endanger the election’s legitimacy.

Russian Stance

“The vote hasn’t happened yet but Russia’s already saying it’s not legitimate,” said Oleksandr Chernenko, head of Ukraine’s Committee of Voters, a non-governmental organization. While it’s clear in some areas that voting won’t happen, “we have to ensure that it does in most of the east and south,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said yesterday.

Separatists are deploying their best spoiling tactics.

Petro Poroshenko, the election’s billionaire front-runner, saw two of his campaign bases of destroyed this month, while his representative in the eastern city of Makiyvka, Serhiy Nesterov, was shot and beaten by armed men on May 16, his office said. The chocolate tycoon is set to beat Yulia Tymoshenko by about 40 percentage points in a second round of voting, polls show.

The nationalist Svoboda party has also been targeted. Its candidate in Makiyvka, Oleksiy Demko, was abducted twice, shot and critically wounded, the party said. Separatists this week also kidnapped Lyudmyla Bushuyeva, head of the district election commission, before releasing her, local media reported.

‘Numerous Cases’

“There are numerous cases of illegal detentions, of abductions, especially affecting journalists as well as members of the electoral commissions, which certainly will make the elections in the east of the country much more difficult,” Ivan Simonovic, United Nations assistant secretary-general for human rights, said May 21, putting the death toll at 127.

“Terrorists and criminals in the east are doing their best to stop the election process by attacking polling stations, seizing documents, damaging office machines, terrifying voting-commission members and party representatives,” First Deputy Prosecutor General Mykola Holomsha told reporters today in Kiev.

Representatives of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic reject accusations its supporters are involved in abductions, though admit to obstructing the vote’s preparations.

Government’s Fault

“It’s the Ukrainian government who abducts people, threatens them and so on, and they’re attributing it to us,” Dmitriy Gau, the republic’s press secretary, said May 21 by phone. “But we’re really hampering the Ukrainian presidential election arrangements. We’re confiscating ballots and ballot boxes because the Donetsk People’s Republic has nothing to do with presidential elections in a neighboring country.”

The republic also says it will “check voting stations” on election day “so none of them can take part,” he said.

More than 55,000 Interior Ministry troops are involved in guarding about 32,000 polling booths across Ukraine, deputy minister Mykola Velychkovych said today. The government has also deployed 11,000 tax police, 11,000 servicemen from the emergency situations service and 16,000 civil activists, he said.

“The situation is very difficult,” said Serhiy Tkachenko, head of Ukraine’s Committee of Voters in Donetsk. “In the Donetsk region, only about 25 percent of the booths are ready.”

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