DONETSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - From a cramped office in residential Donetsk, election officials were frantically working on Sunday to prepare for Ukraine’s May 25 presidential poll, despite what they described as intimidation and threats from pro-Russian separatists.
By Monday morning, their resolve broken, they had shut down their office.
“We’re not working out of safety concerns,” said Volodymyr Klotsky, a member of election commission no. 43, adding that he and his colleagues had reluctantly taken the decision after “terrorists” had seized the offices of another voting commission nearby.
Klotsky’s commission had been the last of five such election bodies opened up in the eastern Ukrainian city, an industrial hub of about 1 million, which is now the centre of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.
The separatists’ revolt, fuelled by heady Russian propaganda, was focused at several points in the east following the overthrow of the Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich and the annexation by Russia of Crimea.
Nonetheless, electoral authorities had set up Klotsky and others like him to do their best to prepare for an election that Kiev’s pro-Western rulers hope will legitimize government after the street revolt that forced Yanukovich to flee to Russia.
With most of Donetsk’s strategic points in separatist hands, this had always been a distant hope in this part of Ukraine. The predicament of Klotsky and his colleagues is further evidence of the separatists’ determination to disrupt the election.
Speaking on Sunday before the decision to shut up shop, Klotsky said unknown men had appeared in his office twice in the past two weeks, stealing computers and threatening staff if they did not leave.
“We fear only one thing,” Klotsky said then.
“It is the interference of these people, who have grabbed the region by force, who have placed checkpoints around the city to protect it from something. We are worried that either tomorrow, either now, either on election day, they will come and stop our work physically,” he said.
Later on Monday Klotsky was out of reach at a police station. It was not clear why.
“We have information on a number of presidents, of vice presidents of electoral commissions being abducted, being maltreated, with implications for a number of other members of the commissions,” Ivan Simonovic, U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights said in Kiev in an interview with Reuters on Monday.
“There is intimidation,” he said. “A lot of people (in eastern Ukraine) are preparing to leave, not only because of security but because of their social and economic prospects. It may be a big exodus, and it’s going to be a major challenge.”
Kiev authorities were adamant the election would go ahead despite the difficulties.
“We realize, and are not deceiving anyone about this, that it will be impossible to hold normal elections over the huge territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Monday, referring also to the neighboring region of Luhansk where separatists also occupy key buildings.
Avakov accused separatists of carrying out “bandit actions” aimed at disrupting the election.
“But elections will take place in Ukraine all the same, despite the wishes of the terrorists to prevent them, even if they are disrupted over several parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” Avakov told a news conference.
Donetsk region - as opposed to the city - accounts for an electorate of 3.3 million - just over 9 per cent of the national voter base of 35.5 million. With Luhansk the two regions account for 14.3 percent.
Other flashpoints where polling booths could be disrupted include the towns of Slaviansk and Kramatorsk, which have seen some of the worst clashes between separatists and the Ukrainian army.
Current opinion polls make confectionery magnate Petro Poroshenko a comfortable front-runner, well ahead of second-placed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. One poll indicates Poroshenko might even get more than 50 percent and so be elected in the first round.
A separatist campaign to stop large-scale voting in large areas of the east will damage candidates whose strongest support is there, namely, Mykhailo Dobkin, a 45-year-old businessman who was once close to the ousted Yanukovich, and Serhiy Tigipko, a banker and businessman who performed strongly in the last presidential campaign in 2009-10.
Both have sought to tap into this support by accusing the Kiev authorities of clumsy handling of the crisis and failing to address legitimate grievances of the local population, in particular Russian-language rights.
Tigipko acknowledged that the separatists’ action was likely to hurt him at the ballot box.
“I will in any situation recognize the result of the elections because Ukraine needs a legitimate president, otherwise we will continue with chaos,” he told Reuters in an interview in Kiev.
Klotsky’s electoral commission covers around 150,000 voters in the city and 99 polling stations, which are usually installed in schools. With their work incomplete, it is unlikely the vote there will be recognized as valid.
The commission’s office is just 10 minutes’ drive from central Donetsk, where separatists hold the huge Soviet-era district administration building, barricaded and guarded by armed men in a variety of army fatigues and black masks.
For them and their supporters in Donetsk, the election is irrelevant.
“This election is a joke,” said a 27-year-old junior leader of separatists, whose team guards an entrance to the district administration building. He gives only his codename, “Naruto”, which is the name of the hero of an eponymous Japanese Manga comic book.
Naruto feels that his political choices have been constantly ignored or overturned by Kiev and Ukrainian politicians and protesters from the mainly Ukrainian-speaking west of Ukraine.
“The rules of the game change - it makes no sense for me to vote. When I win an election, they say it was a bad election. When I lose an election, they say it’s a good election,” he said.
“I’m not some crazy ex-military guy. On the Maidan (Kiev’s Independence square) they say we are animals, we don’t know about freedom. But I know how people live here ... I am fighting for human rights.”
Naruto, friendly and relaxed, with a wide smile, doesn’t fit the separatist stereotype. A graduate and electrical engineer, he has worked for Western companies and has also travelled widely in the region and seen its poverty.
Recounting the complicated history of Ukraine from the past 100 years, he nevertheless reflected Moscow’s playbook - that the new government in Kiev is filled with neo-Nazis whose ancestors fought for independence from Polish and Soviet rule and collaborated with Germany during World War Two.
“There are people in Western Ukraine who are Nazis - really Nazis. But they have ways of masking it,” he said. “I think that we’re fighting Nazism. We’re the first line of defense against fascism in the world. I’m not fighting for the Russians - I’m fighting against Nazis.”
Between the barricades and armed, masked men of the administration building and the electoral commission, life in the city is surreally normal. Enjoying 30-degree sunshine for the past three days, families stroll along leafy avenues and children play in fountains.
Along the roadside, billboards show posters for presidential candidates including the Western-leaning Poroshenko. Political adverts of all hues are aired on the radio.
On Sunday, a modest rally in favor of the separatists took place with several hundred people gathered at Lenin Square in the centre of town. For some, the election was the last thing on their minds; their focus was rather on how the new “Donetsk National Republic” will move from here.
“Life is going to be worse now, we understand that perfectly. Our status will not be defined well - we understand. But we just have to live through this. And after that the future will be brighter,” said Anna, a middle-aged accountant at a private firm.
Additional reporting by Gareth Jones, Natalya Zinets and Gabriela Baczynska in Kiev; Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Will Waterman