Ukraine holds key vote shunned by rebel-held east
KYIV - Reuters
A family talks in a polling booth in a polling station in the eastern Ukrainian town of Dobropillya on May 25, 2014. AFP PhotoUkrainian polling stations opened on Sunday in a presidential election overshadowed by violence in the country's mainly Russian-speaking east and by Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.
Voting began at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) across the former Soviet republic of 45 million people. It will end 12 hours later, when exit polls will indicate a result ahead of an official outcome on Monday.
Voters will find many polling stations shut in the east, where armed pro-Moscow separatists are trying to block an election they say is illegitimate. European election monitors have largely pulled out of the Donetsk region, citing a separatist campaign of "terror" against Ukrainian officials.
Opinion polls put Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire confectionery magnate, well ahead of his rivals in an election expected to draw a high turnout. If no candidate wins over 50 percent of the vote a run-off election will be held on June 15.
"Ukraine is now another country so I don't see why we should take part in this election," said one woman in the rebel-held city of Donetsk who gave her name as Elisabeta.
"It doesn't matter what the result is, it doesn't concern us today."
The West regards the vote as a crucial step in preventing Ukraine from disintegrating further after Russia seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March in retaliation for the ouster of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych.
Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk had issued an appeal for voters to turn out in force on Sunday to "defend Ukraine" in the face of a crisis that has plunged relations between East-West relations to a post-Cold War low.
"I hope this election will finally bring peace to Ukraine," said 38-year-old businessman Oleg as he voted in the western nationalist bastion of Lviv near the Polish border.
But in the Donetsk region alone, where rebels declared independence earlier this month in defiance of Kiev, only 426 out of 2,430 polling stations were open, and none in the main city.
Even before polling day, election officials had reported numerous cases of intimidation and attacks on polling centres and rebels threatened Saturday they would disrupt the vote "by force if necessary".
Violence had flared on the eve of the vote in eastern flashpoint of Slavyansk, where two Western photographers and their Russian translator wounded after being caught in gunfire between separatist and Ukrainian forces.
President Vladimir Putin -- authorised by parliament to invade Ukraine if necessary to "protect" ethnic Russians -- had appeared to make a major concession Friday by saying he was ready to work with the new Kiev team.
"We understand that the people of Ukraine want their country to emerge from this crisis. We will treat their choice with respect," he said.