East Ukraine`s die-hard voters ready for obstacle course

With election officials forced into hiding by separatist militias, nobody knows where polling stations will be set up in rebel-held eastern Ukraine. 

Donetsk: With election officials forced into hiding by separatist militias, nobody knows where polling stations will be set up in rebel-held eastern Ukraine. 

Or indeed whether there will be any at all.

But some die-hard voters say they are ready to drive hours and dodge checkpoints to cast their ballots in the nationwide presidential election due to take place on May 25.

"There will be huge problems," acknowledged Oleksandr Mosyichuk, a pastor in the Donetsk suburb of Makyivkia.

"I know our dear separatists want to prevent the vote. I will try by all means to cast a ballot but I have no clue where or how," said the clergyman. 

"We have a car, it`s a Russian car but it still works, and we are ready to drive two or three hours just to vote."

Ukraine`s electoral commission warned Saturday that the presence of insurgents who have declared their own independent republics in the coal and steel hubs of Donetsk and Lugansk could make it impossible to hold an election there.

"It might be a risky business for me, but I will vote, it`s my right," said Pavlo Kosovlev, a 27-year-old father of two who lives in Donetsk, one of the main cities controlled by pro-Russia militants.

"I want our country to be sovereign and united." The election is being viewed as a watershed that will determine the very future of a country facing partition as it is caught up in a Cold-War style struggle between Russia and the West.

Nevertheless, polling stations have not been designated in the rebel-held east and the local election committees have warned they cannot guarantee their own safety, let alone that of voters.

Armed combat is commonplace in the flashpoint cities of the east, along with reports of targeted killings, abductions and other violence and intimidation as Ukraine`s army battles to rout the separatists in control of a dozen or more towns and cities.

Sunday`s election was called by the new leaders who took office after the February ouster of Kremlin-allied president Viktor Yanukovych following months of sometimes bloody protests by the pro-EU opposition.

But in the chaotic aftermath of the events in Kiev, Russia seized the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and pro-Kremlin militants launched their own armed uprising across swathes of the east.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has emerged as a key player in Western efforts to defuse the crisis, is planning to send about 1,000 observers for the vote.

But their presence may do little to help people in the east, where Ukraine`s election body said two million out of a total 36 million voters nationwide risked being prevented from casting a ballot in Donetsk and Lugansk alone.According to an opinion poll released last week, only about a third of the electorate in the east is ready to even try to vote.

"There is no way I can protect 3.5 million voters," said Sergiy Tkachenko, one of the national electoral commission`s officials in charge of the Donetsk region.

How can you hold a credible vote when the premises due to house polling stations are seized by militiamen, election materials destroyed and officials threatened, he asked.

"The lives of the electoral body`s members are at risk. They are very scared and are forced to go underground," said Tkachenko, who spends most of his time barricaded in a hotel and has sent his family away to a safe location.

Aleksandr Borodai, the shadowy Russian who was named prime minister of the Donetsk rebel republic, said there was no way the election would go ahead on his turf.

"I don`t think it will even be necessary to put any serious pressure on anyone (not to vote)," he said, declaring that Ukraine was already a failed state.

But some in Donetsk said it was a national duty to vote, despite the risks.
"In such circumstances of course we`re scared to vote. We`re scared of living," said Alla Moskalets, without taking her eyes off her daughter playing nearby.
"I will go out to vote because I think the country is powerless right now," she said. "It is the last hope before civil war."