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Pro-Russia Rebels Step Up Campaign of Violence to Halt Ukraine's Presidential Election

With less than a week to go, armed pro-Russian rebels are upping the ante with a campaign of violence to stop the vote in Kiev.

by Harriet Salem
May 18 2014, 8:05pm

Photo via AP

Lace curtains twitch. Ukrainian army snipers peer cautiously out the window. Below in the dusty sun baked courtyard more soldiers, cradling Kalashnikovs, stand guard.

Inside, officials work nervously at their desks. Stacked in the corner of an upstairs room in Belovdosk Cultural Center, which doubles as a headquarters for the District Election Commission, piles of neatly parceled ballot papers are ready for distribution to polling stations.

The clock is ticking down to Ukraine’s presidential election. But with less than a week to go, armed pro-Russia rebels controlling pockets of the country's east are upping the ante with a campaign of violence and intimidation aimed at halting the vote.

For the government in Kiev — brought to power by revolution and not the ballot box — any disruptions on the day will be disastrous, all their hopes are now pinned on a free and fair and vote to bolster their legitimacy to govern.

Watch all of VICE News' dispatches, Russian Roulette: The Invasion of Ukraine here.

Belovdosk, a sleepy eastern Ukrainian town, lies in the buffer zone that separates the rebel-held south of Luhansk oblast, from the north. Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers have been sent here over the last week in a bid to stabilize, at least some, pockets of the region before next weekend’s presidential election.

“It’s effectively a military partition” a security source told VICE News. “They’ve lost control of the [oblast’s] south, now they’re trying to secure the north.”

But the heavy military presence in the region, including an aggressive Kiev-backed anti-terrorism operation against the rebels in Sloviansk, is carving deep divides in local communities as well as the landscape.

For many of the regions' towns and villages the presidential vote, if it goes ahead, will be a second opportunity for a trip to the polls in just a week.

Last Sunday, a dubious rebel-held "referendum" declared 90 plus percent of voters in favor of an independent Donetsk People's Republic.

Ukraine rebels’ ultimatum expires as election edges closer. Read more here.

In a Belovdosk café, talk about the elections has sparked a family argument.

Dina, a dashing 70-year-old waitress with dyed bright red hair, told VICE News she plans to vote in the upcoming election "for the sake of the country," much to the irritation of Igor, her 49-year-old son-in-law, a retired military pilot, who last week voted for secession.

“What election are you talking about? This ‘army’ that come here to fight there own people, these people who you think protect you would beat their own mother,” he retorts between beer swigs.

A Fractured Region

A drive along the region’s potholed roads reveals exactly how fractured the region is. In several places, just a few miles of tarmac separates the blue-and-yellow flag of the Ukrainian army, accompanied by dug in APCs and soldier encampments, from the checkpoints of rebel fighters, decked out in ragtag military fatigues and armed with RPGs.

“We had information that I would be stopped from passing, detained, at a separatist checkpoint,” Vladimir Nesmiyanov, head of the Belovdosk-based District Electoral Commission.

He told VICE News how the day before, a trip to deliver voting equipment to a nearby village had to be aborted after he received a warning that he would be captured on the journey. Just under half of the districts he supervises have “problems” said Nesmiyanov. “It’s tense” he adds quietly, but clearly doesn’t want to say much more.

Nesmiyanov has, so far, been lucky. Across the territory of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic rebels have launched a campaign of intimidation against those trying to oppose them, kidnapping and beatings being the weapon of choice.

Doorstep chaos mounts in Eastern Ukraine as Kiev talks waver. Read more here.

“It’s enough to do this to just a few people,” said Vyacheslav Bondarenko, the editor of a local online news portal OBZOR. “You only have to do it a few times to scare people.”

Several of his colleagues have fled after being threatened or detained by the rebels.

“They drove one of my journalists to the river and told him next time they saw him they would cut off his fingers and cock. He's a brave man, but he left to Kiev," Bondarenko told VICE News. "Who wouldn't?"

In the last week alone three election officials have been kidnapped and the Donetsk campaign office of presidential candidate Sergey Tigipko, torched by masked men who hurled Molotov cocktails at the building until it caught fire.

Two election commissions in the oblast have been attacked by armed men, who in one case seized computer hard drives with voter information stored on them.

Across Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts the rebels are suspected of holding at least 80 prisoners, mainly local officials, activists and journalists.

Law and order has nearly entirely collapsed in the region as Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt police have switched their loyalties, either disappearing from the streets altogether, or in some places actively cooperating with the rebels.

“This place is Christmas for criminals,” a security source told VICE News. “There’s an epidemic of crime, mostly political but some random as well.”

Local authorities have fared little better in standing their ground. In Donetsk, the region’s governor, steel and coal oligarch, Sergey Taruta, ousted from his state office by the rebels more than six weeks, now tries to run the oblast in internal exile — hotel hopping across the city.

Speaking to VICE News the tycoon's spokesperson admits the vote may not go ahead in Donetsk either.

"We're preparing, but it's not a good picture," he admits. "I have election officials calling and asking if the DPR [rebels] have given us permission to hold the vote, I just tell them to stay safe."

Meanwhile the Kiev-appointed governor of neighboring Luhansk, Irina Verigina, in her post for mere weeks, has disappeared from the public eye almost altogether.

During her last official appearance, nearly a week ago, an angry crowd heckled her at the Victory Day celebrations for not wearing the orange and blacked St. George ribbon — a symbol of respect to the veterans of the Soviet army during World War II that has been now hijacked by the rebels as a symbol of their struggle.

An Atmosphere of Fear and Intimidation

Unsurprisingly, in the atmosphere of fear and intimidation many local officials are simply too scared to come to work.

Irina Zaikina, the deputy mayor of Paraskoveyvka, says she hoped she "won't get killed" for speaking to press about preparations for Ukraine's presidential elections

“Some people have stopped answering the phone, others say they can’t be involved anymore. They are afraid, as any human being would be; we have children…,” 55-year-old Irina Zaikina, the deputy mayor of Paraskoveyvka, a small village just a mile or so from Sloviansk, the rebels' heartland, told VICE News. Zaikina said they are preparing towards the election but it is “unclear” who will provide security on the day.

How Russia conquered eastern Ukraine without firing a shot. Read more here.

“I hope this interview won’t get me killed,” she adds anxiously, reflecting on the fate of Volodymyr Rybak a local councilor in nearby Horlivka whose body was found floating in a river bearing signs of torture after he dared speak out against the rebels last month.

In a micro example of the broader regional struggles, Zaikina's office is awkwardly sandwiched between a Ukrainian army base and a rebel camp. Just a stone’s throw away from her window, in the rebel base, local Cossacks — a semi-militarized group with roots in and strong ties to Russia — told VICE News they’re ready to stop anyone who tries to hold vote.

Pot-bellied skinhead Viktor says the pro-Russian Cossacks in Paraskoveyvka will stop the elections, scheduled for May 25, from going ahead.

“This is Donetsk People’s Republic, the people have voted already. The Kiev junta has no authority here anymore. How can there be an election here? For who?” said pot-bellied skinhead 47-year-old Viktor proudly posing for Fred Flintstone-style snapshot, wielding a giant mace above his head — one of the traditional weapons of Cossacks.

On Saturday, the Central Election Commission called on the government in Kiev to act on its concerns that the security situation is only "worsening" as the country's restive east braces for elections.

Most now agree that in some areas the chance of holding the vote is slim-to-none.

"The real question now is whether Kiev can claw back enough control to say the election is legitimate," the security source told VICE News.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem