KIEV, Ukraine — Marina Demko wants to build a stronger Ukraine if she wins a seat in her nation’s landmark parliamentary elections Sunday.
But she has one big problem: She is campaigning to represent a part of her country that is under the control of Russian-supported rebels who are trying to build a parallel state. Many residents there who believed in a united Ukraine have fled. And there is little chance that anyone remaining in the enclave that calls itself New Russia will have the chance to vote for representation in Kiev’s rowdy parliament, making her race entirely symbolic.
The rest of Ukraine will cast ballots Sunday for the last major national institution untouched since President Viktor Yanukovych was swept out in February on a tidal wave of pro-European protests. But Demko and dozens of other candidates are running campaigns-in-exile this year, forced from their hometowns in Ukraine’s breakaway eastern industrial heartland into provisional existences in dreary dormitories and chilly refugee camps.
“It’s impossible to do any campaigning. There’s a lot of fighting there,” said Demko, who fled her home near the rebel stronghold of Donetsk after her husband was abducted by separatists in May. He was freed a month later, and they now live in a cramped hostel on the outskirts of Kiev. “Of course I'd like to return home, but at the moment clearly it’s not possible. And it won’t be possible for a long time,” she said.
Ukraine’s leaders had intended Sunday’s parliamentary vote as the triumphant end to the last remnants of Yanukovych’s government, completing a transformation that started in February and was supposed to have opened the door to the country’s European future. But the reality of Ukraine’s grim situation has dampened the celebrations, and the wave of candidates vying to represent territory that is too dangerous for them to visit is just the latest symptom of the nation’s travails.
More than 400,000 Ukrainians are displaced inside their own country, according to U.N. figures. Physically, Ukraine is more divided than ever, with its Crimean Peninsula annexed by Russia and rebels in the east having won concessions that effectively allow them to set up a permanent separatist enclave.
But the elections will still probably bring a cadre of new faces to power, further upending Ukraine’s chaotic political system with soldiers, activists and others who have no experience as elected politicians . The parliament will have the strongest pro-European orientation in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history, a new step for a country that has long been pulled between east and west.
The candidates include activists who participated in the winter protests to combat corruption, make Ukraine less dependent on Russia and turn the economy toward Europe. Demko, who is running as a member of the hard-line nationalist Freedom Party and who says she wants to rebuild a united nation, is one of them.
“I never thought I’d be involved in politics,” Demko said. “But politics found me.”
Not long ago, Demko was an ordinary worker at the municipal water utility in Makeevka, an industrial city of 350,000 adjacent to Donetsk. She and her husband supported the pro-European protests that swept Ukraine over the winter, and they worked on behalf of Petro Poroshenko’s presidential campaign in Donetsk in April and early May — a bold move, since separatists had already seized government buildings and were slowly working to firm their control of the area.
Then, on a Saturday in early May, Demko’s office asked her to come in to do some extra weekend work. She was lucky: Soon after, her husband called her to say that the rebels had come to take him away and that she should under no circumstances go home.
She fled straight to the train station, took the first train out of Donetsk and has not been home since. She met her husband in Kiev when he was freed a month later — granted liberty, she believes, because she raised such a ruckus inside Ukraine that they let him go just to make her shut up.
The parliamentary race “is just a formality,” she said, since no one will vote and the seat will remain unfilled. “But if we could have real elections now, I could get some votes. Parliament needs women, especially women like me, and I think I can do some good there,” she said.
Like many people in the east, Demko has family ties to Russia: Both of her parents are Russian, she grew up in Siberia and her brother still lives there. Until recently, he vacationed with them every summer in western Ukraine — but now, since he consumes a steady stream of Russian state television that says that the protesters in Ukraine are neo-Nazis and are committing genocide against Russians, the two are barely on speaking terms.
“He says I’ve been zombified,” Demko said.
Demko said that what Ukraine needs is a stronger sense of national identity, including in the east.
“For 20 years there was no patriotic education in the country,” she said. In the east, “people themselves are not Russian, but they're not Ukrainian. They are without nationality. They don't affiliate themselves anywhere.”
The elections were declared in August, when Ukraine appeared to have the upper hand against the rebels. Now, the hopes have been tempered by the growing air of permanence surrounding the Russian-supported rebels, who have vowed to block the national balloting inside their territories. Violence has continued there despite a Sept. 5 cease-fire deal, and Ukraine this past week deployed border guards along the new internal frontier.
Rebels are determined to hold elections of their own Nov. 2 — a step they say is critical to their own nation-building process, and one that Russian officials have praised. Ukraine’s leaders have said any such elections would be illegal.
Even in areas far from the fighting, several parliamentary candidates have been attacked in recent weeks, under unclear circumstances. And Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk warned this past week that Russia may try to disrupt elections around the country.
Reminders of Ukraine’s old style of rough-and-tumble politics are also on display, further worrying activists who had hoped for a more fundamental break with the corrupt political past. Many here worry that Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs are still banking many of the political parties. And some of the new-era cabinet members appointed after Yanukovych’s ouster have already resigned in frustration, saying that their attempts to enact reforms were thwarted by powerful interests that made change impossible.
Opinion polls suggest that the coalition led by Poroshenko and Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko will be the biggest force in parliament, but that they may need to build a ruling coalition with one of the smaller political parties led by Yatsenyuk, Yulia Timoshenko or firebrand nationalist Oleh Lyashko.
Any electoral outcome will probably leave Poroshenko’s basic Western-oriented policies in place. But he may feel pressure to show a harder line against Russia and the rebels, since anti-Russian voices will gain in number and former Yanukovych allies, who were friendlier to Russia, will fade.
“This is a break between Ukraine’s future and Ukraine’s past as a Soviet state,” said Yuriy Yakymenko, a political analyst at the Razumkov Center, a Kiev-based political analysis group. “We will have a completely different approach to Russia. It’s not a brother state, it’s not even a friend. It’s an enemy.”
But as many as 50 of the parliament’s 450 seats may be left unfilled, said Central Election Commission Deputy Head Andriy Magera, a result of the vote being impossible to conduct in those parliamentary districts. Voters elect half of the legislature’s lawmakers directly; the other half are selected via political party lists.
Even the most unified parliament will struggle with Ukraine’s crippling issues, which range from a collapsed economy to a looming wintertime natural-gas crisis that could soon leave Ukrainians shivering for lack of heat.
And for the parliamentary candidates running to represent areas that will not be able to elect them, there is little hope in sight.
“People are tired of war right now,” Demko said. But whether people are ready to return to the streets if Ukraine stalls in its progress toward a more European life is less clear, she said. “No one knows whether they are tired of protesting.”