Ukraine

What To Expect When Ukraine Votes for Its Next President on Sunday

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From the U.S. to Russia, all eyes will be on Ukraine this Sunday when the volatile nation votes for its next president. The situation is tense following days of heavy bloodshed.

What's at stake?

Ukraine is in political and economic turmoil. Although a 77 percent majority of citizens want the nation to remain unified, fewer than 50 percent have confidence in the interim leaders' ability to stabilize Ukraine amid uprisings. "The election—which comes six months after the outbreak of protests that led to the president's ouster and a deepening chasm between pro-Europe and pro-Russia Ukrainians—aims to unify the fiercely divided country or at least discourage further polarization," explains the Associated Press.

Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov hopes that the vote will demonstrate that "we will never allow anyone to rob us of our freedom and independence, turn our Ukraine into a part of the post-Soviet empire."

Leaders of the self-declared separatist "people's republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk will try to stop locals from participating in the national election. The threat of violence looms as they killed 13 soldiers in an ambush yesterday and led a 500-man attack on the military today. The absence of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk could skew results, since the regions comprise 15 percent of Ukraine's population. And the situation poses concerns about rights violations. Radio Free Europe reports that separatists have terrorized campaign workers, stolen and destroyed computers, and "demanded…election workers turn over boxes of ballot forms." If Ukraine's next president cannot calm the east, it may end up lost like Crimea where, according to Amnesty International, political minorities are being persecuted by the pro-Russian government.

For their part, pro-Western Ukrainians are warning that they may rise up again if their next president fails to represent their best interests.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is sending 1,250 election monitors, its largest-ever contingent, to try to ensure legitimacy. However, the Kiev Post reports that the OSCE will not know until Saturday morning whether or not monitors will go to the battle-scarred eastern territories.

Who's going to win?

Heavily favored to win the election is the independent Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire businessman and former minister of foreign affairs. As minister, he crafted the economic agreement that was supposed to liberalize trade between Ukraine and the E.U. When then-president Viktor Yanukovych nixed the deal, Poroshenko voiced support for the pro-Western, democratic revolutionaries who deposed Yanukovych. Poroshenko leads the race with 45 percent support in the polls. His only legitimate competitor, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, has fallen to 13 percent.

Although Poroshenko has been described as a "political chameleon" and has maintained a relatively low profile throughout tumultuous months of violent uprisings, this may be to his advantage. Whereas Tymoshenko is perceived as too divisive between eastern and western Ukrainians and her associates in the interim government are floundering to keep the country together, Poroshenko is seen "by many voters as the best person to reform the country's failing economy."

Poroshenko "may take Russia's interests into account, but only to a limited extent" and will focus mostly on strengthening western ties, said Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

Where does Putin stand?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has previously called the election illegitimate, today promised not to interfere. "We understand and see that people in Ukraine want the country to come out of this lengthy crisis," he said. "We also want the situation to become calmer. We will respect the choice made by the people of Ukraine."

His administration also promised earlier this week that it was withdrawing troops from Ukraine's border, though there has been no evidence of that so far. Around 40,000 troops have been stationed there as part of an explicit threat of invasion if Russian interests in Ukraine are compromised.

Where does the Obama administration stand?

The Obama administration maintains that Russia is the major sponsor of sectarian violence destabilizing Ukraine. Last Thursday Secretary of State John Kerry championed the election and called upon Putin to "let Ukraine vote. Let the Ukrainian people choose their future. And let them do so in a fair, open, free, accessible, election." Kerry also warned that the U.S., with the support of the E.U., would hit Russia with even more sanctions if the Putin administration interferes with the election.

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