MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Election workers in this city of a half million on Saturday night completed preparations for Sunday’s presidential election, uncertain whether voters will brave the threats of armed pro-Russian militants who have set up a base just blocks from the election commission’s offices..
The outcome of the voting is not in question; polls give Petro Poroschenko, the billionaire “chocolate king,” an unassailable lead in the field of 21 candidates. The issue is whether voters in eastern Ukraine, with 15 per cent of the country’s 46 million population, will cast ballots.
The surprising news from a visit to Mariupol and three other towns and villages between this industrial port town and the regional capital of Donetsk is that elections workers are in fact preparing to receive voters Sunday. Everyone is aware that an armed attack is a possibility.
“Only a fool is not afraid,” Victor Ivanovich Kovta, the chairman of the regional election commission, told McClatchy.
The self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic, which has fought deadly battles against Ukrainian authorities in Mariupol and throughout the Donetsk region, sent a manifesto to the commission earlier in the week, demanding that it halt its work.
But the commission is ignoring it. “The unity of Ukraine and the direction of our country” are the major question to be decided Sunday, Kovta said.
“I want to support the unity of Ukraine,” said Tatiana Ignatemko, the commission’s spokeswoman. “I want someone to protect me on my land.”
The militants have seized a bank building just 350 yards from the commission’s offices in the Palace of Youth and are armed with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, she said, estimating their numbers at 300 to 400.
Ukrainian security forces are no match. “We have the police,” said Kovta, rolling his eyes in disbelief. There are also private militias, now officially grouped into a national guard, but operating mostly without direction from Kiev.
At a checkpoint north of Mariupol, Ukrainian soldiers slowed cars and performed random inspections, but the operation seemed amateurish, with most soldiers lacking body armor, and no one wearing a helmet. Knots of soldiers sat or stood without weapons by the side of the road, watching, easy prey if a foe were to attack from both ends of the checkpoint. All 20 soldiers could easily be killed _ which is exactly what happened Thursday in Volnavaha, not far from here.
The government’s response to the Thursday attack was to blame Russia and its proxies for the incident, rather than to draw lessons from the military’s own unprofessional handling of the event _ an ominous sign of weakness and disorder.
The lack of protection at a time of major threat was on the mind of election officials in the towns visited by a McClatchy reporter.
In Novoazovsk, a town of 30,000, a Donetsk People’s Republic flag flies over city hall, just below Ukraine’s national flag, the result of two visits by large groups of the pro-Russian militants, the most recent on Friday. Each time they threatened to break windows and destroy furniture if they weren’t allowed into city hall so they could put up their flag on the roof, said Eduard Moskovchenko, a security guard there.
They demanded that the election be called off, but preparations went forward.
What will happen if they attack the polling stations on election day? “I don’t know,” Moskovchenko said. The police in the town “don’t work.” The sole checkpoint, at the edge of town, was unmanned Saturday.
In the town of Telmonovo, an election official couldn’t answer the question of what they’d do if insurgents attacked the voting process. “We have our police,” said one official who did not give his name. “But we don’t know where they are.” It appears the town will have to rely on the Ukrainian military, which has set up three checkpoints on the edge of town.
In Starobeshovo, a village of 3,000, by contrast, the entire police department of about a dozen men were gathered in front of the main polling station and appeared prepared to defend it. The mood was tense. “We are expecting something any minute,” said Kanna Tatyana Nicolaevna, who was in charge. “Maybe in five minutes, something will change.”