Ukraine: The other European election
Pro-Russia separatists killed 16 Ukrainian soldiers on Thursday (22 May), as the country prepares to elect the man or woman who will try to end de facto Russian rule.
The attack, near Volnovakha in eastern Ukraine, is the deadliest incident since clashes in Odessa, in the south, led to more than 40 deaths on 2 May.
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It augurs badly for Ukrainian and EU leaders who fear Russian President Vladimir Putin will try to derail Ukraine's presidential vote on Sunday despite EU threats to impose economic sanctions if he does.
As EU citizens elect MEPs the same day, the Ukraine vote is also about Europe.
It comes after the “Maidan” revolution in February overthrew ex-president Viktor Yanukovych because he abandoned EU integration in favour of closer ties with Russia.
It also comes after Putin in March annexed Crimea, shattering Europe’s post-WWII legal order, and creating the prospect of a new Cold War.
If all goes well, Ukraine’s next leader will get a big mandate in a free and fair vote.
In the worst case, Russian-backed violence could stop the vote from going ahead. Clashes with separatists could escalate, and Russia could invade Ukraine in line with Putin’s doctrine of protecting Russian-speakers abroad.
In a third option, events might yield a lame duck president who agrees to create a federal Ukraine unable to take pro-EU steps.
The man tipped to win by a landslide on Sunday is Petro Poroshenko.
He is polling at 45 to 48 percent, compared to seven to 13 percent by his nearest rivals: ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko; Anatoliy Grytsenko, a pro-Western former defence minister; and Serhiy Tihipko, a former Yanukovych regime member who now backs closer EU ties.
Poroshenko, a 48-year old billionaire, owns Ukraine’s best-known chocolate brand, Roshen. He has served in past governments of all colours and has close ties with the country’s oligarchs.
People like him because he was the first big man to join the Maidan. They trust him to be pragmatic with Russia and to fix Ukraine’s economy. He got a bump when star boxer Vitali Klitschko quit the race to back him. According to Odihr, the European election-monitoring body, he has also bought 48 percent of all TV ads.
Campaigning, described as “subdued” by Odihr, ends on Saturday. Voting opens at 8am local time on Sunday. Exit polls are due after 8pm and preliminary results are due on Monday.
In a striking contrast with the EU election, where turnout could fall below 40 percent, 86 percent of Ukrainians say they will cast their ballot.
Ukraine has 36 million eligible voters. Some 1.8 million of them are in Russian-occupied Crimea and 4 million are in the restive Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Odihr expects few more than 1,000 Crimeans to travel to mainland voting booths. It notes there is no election campaign in Donetsk and Luhansk. But it says its monitors have good access and voting should take place outside rebel strongholds.
There are more than 20 presidential candidates.
But in another contrast with the EU vote, where far-right parties are set to do well, Ukrainian nationalists and ultra-nationalists, such as Oleh Tyahnybok and Dmytro Yarosh, are polling below 2 percent.
Cat and mouse
For his part, Putin is keeping the EU guessing.
On one hand, he endorsed a Swiss and German initiative for peace talks between Ukraine authorities and rebels. But on the other hand, he says the election is void because Yanukovych, who is in Russia, is still president and because Ukraine is on the brink of "civil war".
“In terms of legitimacy and objectivity of the results, this will raise big questions for us,” Putin said while in China on Wednesday (21 May).
EU diplomats are quick to call out his “hypocrisy”.
One source told this website: “How can you invade Crimea then question the legitimacy of the election on grounds that Ukraine is divided? It’s the world turned upside down.”
A second EU diplomat predicted trouble.
He said: “Putin’s goal is to undermine the legitimacy of the new president, so there will be attempts to disrupt the voting, provocations. The most vulnerable spots are regional stations, where ballots are sent and counted. But the FSB [Russian intelligence] has levers everywhere in Ukraine, so you can’t exclude anything, even in the capital or in the west of the country.”
EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy has invited EU leaders to Brussels on Tuesday to “exchange views” on Ukraine, among other topics.
The European Commission in recent weeks drafted potential sanctions on Russia’s energy, banking, high-tech and arms industries. But if leaders opt to go ahead, they will be unable to implement them immediately because EU countries have not decided how far to go.
Maja Kocijancic, the EU foreign relations spokeswoman, told EUobserver the work is “ongoing.” A third EU diplomat noted: “We still have to negotiate the legal details … So the leaders could take a general decision, but this does not mean, of course, that on Wednesday the sanctions will be ready.”
The delay is due to an EU split, with the UK, Nordic countries, and ex-Iron Curtain states on the hawkish side, but with France, Germany, and southern EU countries keen to go back to business as usual.
“Instead of hard diplomacy, there’s an appetite to find a compromise with Russia at any cost in order to stop escalation. Putin sees this as fear, paralysis - the politics of the white flag. It’s a clear sign to him the West is weak and that he can expand his borders without a fight,” a diplomat from one of the hawkish EU states said.