(Reuters) – Ukrainians voted on Sunday for a leader they hope will save their country from bankruptcy, dismemberment and civil war, but eastern cities were turned into ghost towns where armed separatist fighters kept polling stations shut.
The election marks the culmination of a revolution that began in February when a pro-Russian president fled the country and spiraled into an existential crisis when Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by declaring Moscow’s right to invade.
The main candidates, including frontrunner Petro Poroshenko, a confectionery magnate, are promising closer ties with the West in defiance of Putin.
“These are extremely important elections. We have to make sureUkraine becomes a truly independent country, a powerful independent state that nobody will be able to push around,” said pensioner Mihailo Belyk, 65, casting his ballot at a crowded polling station in a southeastern district of the capital Kiev.
But in the Russian-speaking eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Moscow fighters have proclaimed independent “people’s republics”, men with guns succeeded in blocking a vote that would imply their regions are still part of Ukraine. Nor was any vote held in Crimea, which Russiaannexed in March.
Ukrainian authorities said only about 20 percent of polling stations in the two restive eastern regions were working. Just 16 percent of the 3.3 million people in Donetsk region would have access to a place to vote. No polls were open in the regional capital, a city of a million, where streets were largely empty with people afraid to venture outdoors.
Putin, who branded eastern Ukraine “New Russia” last month, has made more accommodating noises of late, saying on Saturday he would respect the Ukrainian people’s will. He has announced the pullback of tens of thousands of troops massed on the frontier.
But the absence of more than 15 percent of the electorate – both in the eastern regions and in Crimea – could give Moscow an excuse to raise doubts about the victor’s legitimacy and continue applying pressure on Kiev.