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Separatists Disrupt Ukraine's Election Preparations


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Teams of international observers are arriving in Ukraine ahead of tomorrow's presidential election. But in the eastern region of the country, where pro-Moscow militia are vowing to disrupt the vote, there may not be much for them to observe. Separatists say they won't allow the election to proceed in the regions that they have declared to be independent states. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Donetsk.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Immediately after claiming victory in a makeshift referendum and declaring the independent peoples Republic of Donetsk, separatist leader, Denis Pushilin, made it clear that his militia would try to stop any attempt at voting in Ukraine's presidential election.

DENIS PUSHILIN: (Russian spoken).

FLINTOFF: It's not going to happen here, he said. Pushilin now calls himself the speaker of the self-declared People's Parliament, and he and his fellow separatists have done everything they can to make sure the election won't happen. That includes invading election offices with armed men, confiscating voter rolls and intimidating officials. Evgeniy Vetriak is the head of the local election committee for Central Donetsk. He says separatist enforcers came to the school that's their polling place.

EVGENIY VETRIAK: (Through translator) They didn't close our polling center. But they ordered the head of the school not to allow us to prepare for the elections and not give us the building. We were asked to leave the building and stop the preparations.

FLINTOFF: He says it was clear that the request was really a threat, and that he and his fellow committee members fear for their lives if they try to hold a vote. Vetriak says that as far as he knows, there will be no polling centers open in Donetsk. It's not hard to find people in the city who say they want to vote, even though they may not be happy with the candidates or the government in Kiev. This is Vita Krashevskaya, owner of a small flower shop in the city's central market.

KRASHEVSKAYA: (Through translator) We're choosing the lesser of two evils. But I need to vote because it's my right.

FLINTOFF: Krashevskaya would not say who she'd vote for, but says she doesn't like the front runner, Petro Poroshenko. Right now, she says, there's no strong person who can help Ukraine. There are people who oppose the election, too, like Vladimir Ivanenko.

VLADIMIR IVANENKO: (Through translator) Nobody needs these elections. Out of 5 million voters in our region, there's no candidate. Can you call that elections?

FLINTOFF: Ivanenko, a pensioner, says his distaste for the election is dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, and not support for the separatists. He says he wants his region to remain part of Ukraine.

Russian President, Vladimir Putin, appears to be sending mixed signals about the election. At an international investment forum in St. Petersburg yesterday, he said Russia would respect the results of the election and work with the winner. But in recent interviews, he's been much less conciliatory. Earlier this week, in Shanghai, he repeated most of Russia's arguments against the election. Including the claim that ousted president Viktor Yanukovych is still the country's legal head of state, and therefore the election can't be legitimate.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through translator) At the same time, it will be very difficult for us to build relations with those who come to power with punitive operations still underway in the southeast Ukraine.

FLINTOFF: By punitive operations, Putin is referring to the Ukrainian military's attempt to take back territory that's been claimed by the separatists - operations in which many fighters from both sides have been killed in the past two days. International election observers have begun arriving in Donetsk, but they're declining to speak on the record about the monitoring mission. Off the record, some observers say the mission leaders are keeping their plans for tomorrow quiet to ensure the safety of their monitors. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Donetsk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.