Ukraine Holds Presidential Election, Eastern Separatists Close Voting Booths
After weeks of uneasy anticipation, Ukraine held its presidential election on Sunday, three months after the nation's pro-Russia former leader fled the country. But while polls in much of the country are bustling, separatist activists have shut down voting stations in eastern regions of the country, effectively disenfranchising hundreds of voters. About 40 percent of eligible voters had cast a ballot as of 3:00 p.m.
Former President Viktor Yanukovich left his post in February after months of protests. Yanukovich had rejected a pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow, sparking the Maidan protests that left 100 people dead. The turmoil that ensured – including Russia's unofficial invasion and annexation of Crimea and recent separatist referenda in other eastern regions of the country – has left the country in chaos. Voters hope that the election will help to unify Ukraine and prevent civil war.
According to the Kyiv Post, Ukraine has 35.5 million registered voters, with up to 20 percent blocked from voting on Sunday. Most of these are reportedly in separatist eastern regions, "including 1.8 million voters in Kremlin-occupied Crimea, 3.3 million voters in Donetsk Oblast and 1.8 million voters in Luhansk Oblast." In those regions, gunmen reportedly blocked polling stations from even opening due to the fact that a vote on Ukraine's president would imply that the regions were still part of that country.
Even so, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that he would "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" and work with the winner of the election to ease the crisis – and stay out of hot water with other nations. Who that president will be remains a mystery: there are 21 names on the ballot. The front-runner when straw polls ended on Friday was billionaire candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko, though ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko did not sit far behind.
"I am convinced that Ukraine can be strong, happy and prosperous if it becomes a member of the European Union," Tymoshenko said after casting her vote. "It is time to conduct a referendum on NATO membership in order to bring peace back to the country."