Ukraine’s ‘chocolate king’ claims win in presidential poll

Pro-Russian militants disrupt voting in eastern regions, where about 14 per cent of the electorate live.
Ukrainians vote in the presidential election at polling station in Kiev on May 25, 2014. Gleb Garanich / Reuters
Ukrainians vote in the presidential election at polling station in Kiev on May 25, 2014. Gleb Garanich / Reuters

DONETSK, UKRAINE // Ukrainians yesterday elected the confectionery king, Petro Poroshenko, their new president as pro-Russian separatists kept voters away from the polls in the south-east.

Exit polls showed Mr Poroshenko, won the election with an absolute majority. He said his first priority was to travel to the east to end “war and chaos” caused by pro-Russian militants.

Hours before he was elected, hundreds of pro-Russia protesters in Donetsk, accompanied by dozens of heavily armed insurgents, massed in front of the sprawling residence of Ukraine’s richest man and Kiev supporter, Rinat Akhmetov.

“Enemy of the people,” the crowd chanted, waving flags bearing the Russian tricolour and banners of the newly self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

Some of the protesters sought to storm the compound but found themselves held back by the separatist fighters.

“There are snipers inside,” one hulking man, clad in a green cap and armed with a machine gun, claimed. “If we let these people through, there’ll be a bloodbath.”

As long lines snaked around polling stations in Kiev, in Donetsk, and the rest of Ukraine’s south-east, most people stayed home amid a climate of resentment, fear and indifference, as well as an increase in violence.

As of 6pm, turnout in the Donetsk region was 10.8 per cent. In Lugansk, it was 17.0 per cent.

The two regions are home to about 5 million eligible voters, more than 14 per cent of the whole electorate.

Over the past week, gunmen had overrun a number of polling stations and election commissions in the area, seizing ballots, intimidating election officials, and forcing many of them to lock up shop.

The separatist authorities, who consider the presidential vote illegitimate, had threatened to punish anyone who took part in the polls. A notice posted on the website of the Donetsk People’s Republic urged sympathisers to denounce anyone found attempting to vote.

The attempt at intimidation proved unnecessary. Inside the city, all polling stations were closed.

Outside the regional administration building, occupied by insurgents since early April, six seized ballot boxes stood in a neat row, converted into trash bins.

“It doesn’t make sense to hold the elections of a foreign state in the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” Roman Lyagin, the separatists’ election commissioner, said. “Ordinary people don’t need this election ... There is no one who represents them,” he said. “I have not met anyone who’s wanted to vote.”

Some residents certainly did. Yuri Shamrin, an electrician, headed out in the morning to cast his vote at a university, only to find its entrance shuttered. He wanted to vote for Petro Poroshenko, the frontrunner, he said, “because he was the best of the bunch”.

Mr Shamrin was fed up with the separatists, he said, and hoped for the Kiev government to step up operations against them. “I hope there’ll be more decisive measures against them after the elections.”

Armed clashes between insurgents and Ukrainian troops have resumed in the run-up to the election. On Thursday, 16 soldiers were killed and dozens more wounded when armed separatists ambushed a military checkpoint about 30 kilometres south of Donetsk, the deadliest assault against Ukrainian forces to date.

According to recent polls, most people in the south-east remain opposed to the insurgents’ calls for independence or union with Russia. Yet resentment towards the Kiev authorities, often perceived as blind or hostile to the interests of Ukraine’s Russian minority, remains in place.

Overtures by the interim government headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, including promises of decentralisation and new language rights, have yet to sway easterners. According to a poll by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, more than 60 per cent of Ukrainians in the east were undecided or did not plan to vote in the presidential election.

“I don’t need to vote,” said Yrina Vyunova, a seamstress, walking her dogs in a park in Donetsk.

“I made my mind up in the referendum,” she added, referring to the ballot on self-rule organised by the separatists on May 11.

The Kiev government, she said, had come to power through a “coup”. Voting in the presidential elections, she said, would mean legitimising it.

Still, she said, “it wasn’t right” for the separatists to block the elections in Donetsk. “If people want to vote they should be able to vote. Everyone has a voice.”

In nearby Lenin Square, a crowd of several thousand protesters was visibly less understanding.

“God forbid us from voting for those putschists,” Yevgenia, a pensioner, yelled. “This is not Ukraine. ” she said. “This is Russia.”

By late afternoon, their anger had spilled onto Mr Akhmetov’s doorstep.

A week earlier, the oligarch, known to rule over wide swathes of Donetsk’s economy, had called on workers across the region to stage “a peaceful warning protest” against the insurgents.

He would now pay the price, many of the protesters warned.

“Akhmetov’s made his choice,” said Aleksandr, a Russian flag in hand, taking a break from shouting slogans in front of the billionaire’s gate. “Who’s not with us is against us.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: May 26, 2014 04:00 AM

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