Ukraine’s interim leaders struggle to keep country from splitting apart ahead of vote

Ukraine’s interim government is struggling to keep the country from breaking in two. Leaders are also struggling to maintain public support ahead of a presidential election that could put the country on a different course.

Even Ukrainians who want the government to succeed sometimes have their doubts.

“They were very, very slow — like drowsy flies,” said Valya Dobrytskaya, 36, who was tending a devotional stall with icons in Mariinsky Park, referring to the interim government’s response to the separatist-led unraveling that has seen Ukraine lose Crimea to Russia and has left the fate of eastern Ukraine in doubt.

But the Western-leaning leaders who assumed power in February with the toppling of President Victor Yanukovych are facing a bureaucratic challenge that may be equally urgent: organizing a nationwide election within 10 days, at a time when the government is unable to assert full control over more than half a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine. Rebels, citing the results of a hasty referendum, have proclaimed the birth of two republics.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, meeting this week in Brussels with the president of the European Commission, said the interim government would take all necessary steps to hold a free and fair election on May 25, even in trouble spots. But amid the tumult, there are looming questions about whether authorities can pull it off, particularly in some southern and eastern areas.

“There might be some sabotage operations, like these Russia separatists or other people [may] try to influence or stop the elections from taking place,” said Galyna Yanchenko, a member of the Democratic Alliance Party who is running in Kiev’s municipal elections to be held the same day.

Twenty candidates are competing for the presidency in the first round of voting, according to Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, and a runoff is scheduled for June 15 if no candidate wins a majority. No member of the current caretaker government is running.

Polls show billionaire Petro Poroshenko ahead of Yulia Tymoshenko, who twice served as prime minister after Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. Poroshenko, one of Ukraine’s richest men, is often called the “Chocolate King” because of the fortune he made in confections.

They and other candidates have campaigned despite the unrest. Their eyes look down from giant campaign billboards on roads in and out of the capital and along the main thoroughfares of Donetsk, where the pro-Russian insurgency has taken root.

Serhiy Taruta , the Kiev-appointed governor of the restive Donetsk region, acknowledged that polling stations would need to be moved out of rebel-held Slovyansk and other hot spots. But he said balloting would go on in more than 2,400 other polling stations in the region.

“The Donetsk People’s Republic does not have sufficient resources to disrupt the process at every district,” he said, referring to one of the self-proclaimed separatist states.

Serious challenges

Election planning is hardly the interim leaders’ only headache. They inherited several major challenges. They are seeking to shore up weak security forces. They have installed new regional governors in Odessa and Donetsk, and have tried to reshuffle local police personnel whose uncertain loyalties could explain their inability to control mobs in cities from Mariupol to Odessa.

Sweet revenge? In the quiet streets of Lviv in Western Ukraine residents are poking fun at Russian President Vladimir Putin by making chocolate figurines of him wearing prison clothes. (Reuters)

And, faced with a free-falling economy, the government has had to line up at least $17 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund. Supporters note that it has had to do all of this since Feb. 22, when Yanukovych fled.

“In a state of war, I cannot criticize this government, because this is the only government I have,” said Ihor Smeshko, former head of Ukraine’s Security Service.

And yet critics, and even some supporters, argue that the government created some of its own problems. Smeshko said it got off on the wrong foot by allowing politics to influence key personnel choices in defense, intelligence and national security, hampering its response to the uprising.

In the Donets Basin, the heart of the insurgency, some Ukrainian officials complain that Kiev’s clumsy handling of the crisis has contributed to its spread. The army has often been reluctant to act for fear of causing civilian casualties or has poorly executed seizures of rebel-held sites, only to surrender them later.

“It’s been a month and they can’t retake Slovyansk,” said a regional official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the topic candidly. Meanwhile, casualties among pro-Russian activists, either at the hands of the army or pro-Ukrainian activists, have deepened animosities.

“I think in the very beginning of the crisis, most politicians underestimated the emotional commitment that’s been seen in the east,” said Andriy Shevchenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, adding that he retains confidence in the interim leadership. “We should have been smarter.”

A call to arms

Recent polls show mixed support for the interim government. Last month, the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit pro-democracy organization backed by the U.S. government, found that 46 percent of Ukrainians approved of the job that acting President Oleksandr Turchynov was doing. Fifty-six percent supported Yatsenyuk, and the parliament received a plurality of support.

But how long the goodwill lasts is anyone’s guess. One sign of growing impatience is the sentiment that Ukraine might be better off letting other eastern regions go the way of Crimea. Shevchenko said he has been hearing more people in Kiev saying just that — but he thinks they are wrong.

“My answer is, that’s not going to solve anything,” Shevchenko said, adding that Russian President Vladi­mir Putin would be emboldened to take more. “His goal is to destroy Ukraine.”

Now, with the most pressing concern an armed rebellion, Kiev is taking a two-pronged approach: inviting rebels to negotiate while also vowing to use military and other security forces to restore order. To bolster state forces, the government has called on people who helped bring down Yanukovych to enlist in the National Guard.

That call to arms has been heard in Independence Square, or Maidan, where the protests began. People still guarding the barricades there say the battle to create a democratic Ukraine has shifted eastward and southward.

“People are ready to fight, because they have this enemy, and this enemy is the separatists,” said Mykola Bondar, a farmer who leads a contingent of more than 100 of Maidan’s “self-defenders,” some of whom he said have already joined the National Guard in eastern and southern Ukraine.

But even among the defenders, there are doubts about the country’s leadership.

“There is no political leader,” said Anastasia Shevchenko, a former barista and actress who helps out at the headquarters of the city’s volunteer self-defense forces. “Nobody trusts politicians. Right now, we have elections without a choice.”

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