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Will Ukraine Be Stable Enough to Hold Elections Next Month?

It's hard to pick a new president when parts of your country are consumed by violence and you've got Russia looming over the border.

by Charles McPhedran
Apr 19 2014, 11:00am

On March 9, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once one of Russia's richest and most influential men and later its most famous prisoner, came to Kiev's Independence Square—the site of the protests that unseated Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych—and spoke. As is often the case for Khodorkovsky, his topic was the oppression of the Russian people by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I was told and shown what the authorities did here. They did it with the consent of the Russian authorities,” Khodorkovsky said of the violence the Ukrainian police inflicted on the demonstrators. “I have seen shields made of plywood that were used here against submachine gun rounds. I felt like crying.”

And as he spoke the crowd chanted, “Russia, rise up!”

Khodorkovsky's speech helps explain why Putin is so worried about the idea of elections in Ukraine, which are scheduled to be held on May 25. The Euromaidan protesters successfully toppled the pro-Russia Yanukovych’s police state—they faced down snipers, snatch squads, and baton charges and won. But, as so often in Ukrainian history, the games played by the country's feckless politicians and Ukraine's big neighbor Russia have since pushed the revolutionaries' goals off the agenda.

It's difficult to predict what Russia’s intentions toward its neighbor will be in the coming months. Presumably a free Kiev, an ancient Slavic city that Putin has called the “mother of all Russian cities,” threatens the ruler of a fairly unfree Moscow. As a result, the Russian strongman has likely been stirring up the situation in eastern Ukraine, which has a large population of ethnic Russians, for months now.

Across eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian protesters—who are reportedly working with Russian special-forces—have taken over government buildings and are demanding to vote on a Crimea-style referendum that would allow the region to join Russia. Support for the idea is especially strong in Donetsk, an industrial city where many still long for the Soviet Union. Kiev has responded by dispatching troops to quell the uprising.

Putin has justified his interventionist stance toward Ukraine by saying he needs to protect the Russians there, but the vast majority of Ukrainians—including most of those in the east—don’t think Russian speakers need protection, and, understandably, are against the idea of Russia sending soldiers into Ukraine.

Still, it seems that the interim government can’t stop such protests from splitting the country's periphery from its center, perhaps because it lacks support in Ukraine's borderlands. The government, which is hardly popular in the capital, has especially few backers in the east, where locals are apathetic at best about the prospect of a new Ukraine. Yanukovych's regime was largely comprised of politicians from the east, but now control has passed back to leaders from the central and the western parts of the country, who are viewed by ethnic Russians as another people.

This regional divide, plus the continued political turbulence (which, as the above video shows, is on the brink of turning into an armed conflict), obviously makes the election a more dicey prospect—and ongoing unrest could give Putin the pretext he needs to send in his tanks, even if that unrest is in part provoked by Moscow’s machinations.

Analysts say it's difficult to imagine how the presidential election will proceed in parts of the east where possibly Moscow-backed protesters have been fighting the police and the military.

“Russia is not going to retreat from the areas it controls in the east,” Andrew Wilson of the European Council of Foreign Relations told me. “It has [also] been working inside Ukraine to keep candidates out of the race who could attract big support in the east.”

Despite the violence, there’s no sign the election will be pushed back, and candidates have been campaigning, including some from pro-Russia parties.

In late March, several hundred members of Yanukovych's Party of the Regions gathered to expel the disgraced leader from their party. They elected Yanukovych confidant Mikhail Dobkin—regarded by critics as a blowhard and an empty suit—as the party's presidential candidate. Some saw this process as fundamentally corrupt.

“They admitted the party was run like a company, where members were like shareholders, who put in their money and then received dividends,” an anonymous source who was present at the meeting said. “Deputies were like a board of directors, who paid themselves big bonuses.”

Dobkin's election created a fissure in the party, and his leading rival, Sergei Tigipko, quit to make an independent run for president. But the former Yanukovych loyalists are struggling to attract support in the polls, associated as the old regime is with all the blood on Kiev's streets.

Yet polls show that Yanukovych's former flunkies have greater support than the far right parties who have positioned themselves as the guardians of the Maidan Revolution. Svoboda, a nationalist group led by presidential candidate Oleh Tyahnybok, took credit for falling statues of Lenin across central and western Ukraine during the revolution, but that riled all the communists in the east, who would rather live in the old Soviet Union than in either Russia or Ukraine. Both Svoboda and Pravy Sektor, a paramilitary nationalist group that has become a political movement, have angered liberals and moderate Ukrainians, who view both parties as inflammatory and believe the nationalists' demands for a more aggressive strategy toward Russia could invite invasion.

More out of resignation than conviction, voters are largely supporting Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko. Poroshenko, a chocolate baron, is leading the polls because he was an early supporter of the Maidan movement. Tymoshenko—a former prime minister who was called the “gas princess” for her dubious energy deals, cultivated a relationship with Putin, and was sent to prison for corruption in 2011—trails Poroshenko by a significant margin, though she’s tried to reinvent herself as a champion of the common people since her release from custody in February. Vitali Klitschko, the boxer-turned-opposition-politician, has withdrawn from the race, intending to become mayor of Kiev, so voters’ options are somewhat limited.

Whoever wins Ukraine's presidential election, however, the most important thing is that they are held—and without any guns going off.

Charles McPhedran is a correspondent based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.