War-scarred Ukraine set for key polls tomorrow

Ukraine voters will go to the polls Sunday in elections set to dramatically reshape parliament, after a year of upheavals in which a deadly pro-Russian uprising has threatened to splinter the ex-Soviet state.

Kiev: Ukraine voters will go to the polls Sunday in elections set to dramatically reshape parliament, after a year of upheavals in which a deadly pro-Russian uprising has threatened to splinter the ex-Soviet state.

Campaigning ended on Friday for the polls called by President Petro Poroshenko in August.

Poroshenko is under pressure to purge parliament of lawmakers tied to the old regime of Viktor Yanukovych, ousted in February after a wave of bloody protests.

While Poroshenko may succeed in creating a pro-Western coalition in parliament, he is falling short of his other aim of bringing the separatist east under control and out of the reach of an increasingly assertive Kremlin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin -- accused of stirring up the uprising after seizing Crimea in the wake of his ally`s ouster in Kiev -- said he respected Ukraine`s territorial integrity but questioned how its frontier with Russia was set.

"The history of Ukraine`s formation and its current borders -- this is a rather complex process," Putin said in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Putin highlighted Moscow`s involvement in Ukraine`s affairs when he acknowledged for the first time that Russia had helped Yanukovych flee his country following his ouster.

"I won`t hide the fact that we helped him seek refuge in Crimea. At the time, Crimea was a part of Ukraine," Putin told Russian and foreign experts at an annual event in Moscow on Friday.

"I`m telling you frankly, Yanukovych asked to be brought to Russia and we did that," he added.

Ukraine had 36.5 million voters, but lost about 1.8 million after the annexation of Crimea in March.

Almost three million others live in separatist-controlled areas of Lugansk and Donetsk regions, where insurgent leaders are boycotting the polls and holding their own votes a week later.Kiev has nevertheless vowed to organise polling stations in government-controlled areas of the rebellious east, with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk promising to ensure security on election day.

"It`s difficult to hold elections in a country that has seen military aggression from Russia," Yatsenyuk said Thursday, warning that anyone seeking to disrupt the process will be punished.

"The choice should be made not with a gun but with a ballot."

Poroshenko said Thursday he hoped to be able to form a Westward-leaning coalition to enact all needed reforms and rebuild Ukraine`s economy, despite the insurgency in the country`s coal and steel belt.

He added that such a coalition would start by modernising the economy -- notoriously corrupt and burdened by a cumbersome tax system -- to meet the demands of international lenders behind a $27 billion rescue deal aimed at averting bankruptcy.

His eponymous Petro Poroshenko Bloc is leading in opinion polls with up to 30 percent of the vote.

However he is not likely to command a majority in the 450-seat parliament and will need to ally with nationalist forces such as wild card radical Oleg Lyashko, whose party has been polling on 13 percent.

Poroshenko said that despite the continuing violence, and the rebels` refusal to accept his offer of temporary self-rule, the war will not become a post-Soviet frozen conflict similar to Moldova`s breakaway Transdniestr region or Georgia`s Abkhazia, whose independence is recognised by Moscow.

"There is not going to be a frozen conflict because Donbass cannot survive without Ukraine," Poroshenko said.A Moscow-backed truce Kiev and the separatists signed on September 5 has calmed the worst fighting, but continues to be broken on a daily basis around the largest rebel-held city Donetsk.

A defence official in Kiev accused the fighters of planning another major raid on the city`s disputed airport this weekend.

More than 3,700 people have been killed in the conflict since April, according to UN figures, and at least 824,000 displaced.

And the threat of Ukraine`s breakup still looms large, with the rebels who declared their own "people`s republics" in Donetsk and Lugansk earlier this year planning to defiantly break away from Kiev`s authority with elections of their own on November 2.

Kiev is also at pains to find a solution to its latest gas dispute with Russia as temperatures on Friday plummeted below zero in the capital.

With the failure of latest talks between Kiev and Moscow, which is demanding that Ukraine settles an unpaid gas bill of $5.3 billion, the country is under pressure to pay up while funds run dry.

The so-called anti-terrorist operation against the pro-Russian separatists was estimated by Poroshenko in the summer months to cost the budget about $5.4 million a day.

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