Ballots, Bombs, and a Rising Body Count

As a new president takes office, a deadly firefight rages in Ukraine’s volatile east.

DONETSK, Ukraine — There were no polling booths in Donetsk, the biggest city in Ukraine's increasingly volatile east, on Sunday. There were no banners for candidates, no get-out-the vote fliers, no stump speeches, and no national flags. There was, instead, a mix of fear, terror, and uncertainty, some measure of defiance, plenty of gunmen, and -- within hours of the election results being announced -- just as much gunfire.

Armed pro-Russian separatists who took control of local government buildings and proclaimed an independent Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) in April -- after Moscow annexed Crimea -- had long pledged to prevent the vote from taking place in the region. The revolution that toppled Ukraine's disgraced former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February was a coup, they claim, and any election that came on its heels was illegitimate.

On Sunday, May 25, after a week of harassing and intimidating election officials, seizing ballot boxes, and vowing to go after anyone who attempted to vote, the rebels lived up to their word. Voter turnout nationwide was about 60 percent, but in the Donetsk region, it was just 15 percent. In neighboring Lugansk, another rebel stronghold, it was 39 percent.

All of the polling stations throughout the city of Donetsk were closed. Outside the hulking regional administration building where the separatists had set up their headquarters, six confiscated ballot boxes stood side by side, like suspects at a Stalinist show trial, transformed by the rebels into trash bins. A photo widely circulated online showed a woman smashing the remnants of several other ballot boxes with the butt of a garden rake.

Many locals did not seem to mind. "What's there to vote for?" asked Yekaterina Subtela, a pensioner. "We've voted already," she said, referring to a May 11 referendum on secession from Ukraine that was organized by the rebels and which most countries denounced as a farce.

Subtela recited a litany of wrongs by what she called the "junta" in Kiev, which included deploying soldiers, including her grandson, a conscript, against the pro-Russian insurgents. "The root of all evil," she concluded, "was the end of the USSR."

Not everyone in Donetsk agreed. Timur, a young engineer, felt he had been robbed of his vote, which he tried to cast at a local school, only to find it closed. (He declined to give his last name, fearing retribution from the rebels who control his hometown.) Timur didn't trust the authorities in Kiev, he said, rocking a stroller carrying his baby boy, but he was also fed up with the insurgents in Donetsk. "I hate separatism. I don't like the people with weapons here, and I don't like the people with weapons in the Maidan," he said, referring to the center of the Kiev-based protests that forced Yanukovych, the ex-president, to flee Ukraine.

The only solution for Ukraine, he opined, was a federal system, where regions like Donetsk, dominated by Russian speakers, could enjoy a certain degree of cultural autonomy. Ukraine needed to remain whole, he said. "We want to be normal people," he said, "to be part of the world market, to communicate freely, to travel abroad."

Yuri Shamrin, a middle-aged electrician pacing down a large avenue in the city center, said he "resented [the separatists] for having denied me the right to vote" and for running "a sham government."

A visibly drunk man who identified himself as a member of the DPR's local militia and demanded that I accompany him to the insurgents' base cut him off, but not before Shamrin managed to make two points. First, he said, he wanted Petro Poroshenko, the chocolate tycoon and longtime front-runner, to win. He was "the best of the worst," he said. Second, he expected the new president to order what he called "more decisive measures" against the insurgents.

Within 24 hours, both of Shamrin's wishes were to come true.

On Sunday night, Poroshenko was elected with 54 percent of the vote. Soon after the preliminary results were announced, the insurgents declared martial law and seized control of Donetsk's international airport. On Monday, Ukrainian forces responded with airstrikes on rebel positions near the terminal, strafing attacks by helicopter gunships, and a paratrooper landing.

The same day, Poroshenko vowed to take the fight to the insurgents, and to do so swiftly. "The anti-terrorist operation cannot last two or three months," he said. "It must take hours." 

In the early afternoon, as the sky near Donetsk's airport grew thick with smoke and the sound of gunfire and explosions rang out across the area, the separatists sent in reinforcements. Dozens of armed militants packed onto trucks disembarked by the side of the road to the airport, taking positions in a wooded area opposite a Peugeot dealership. Minutes later, sniper fire began to whip the leaves off the trees, sending locals and journalists running for cover.

As the fighting crept towards the city center, yet more cars carrying dozens of heavily armed rebels, some with rocket-propelled grenades slung over their shoulders, rushed towards the airport. Cars carrying panicked civilians zipped in the opposite direction.

"I can't come home, they've blocked the roads," one woman, eyeing a large group of militants who had taken cover on the other side of Kievskiy Prospekt, the street connecting the airport to downtown, said into her cellphone. "I can't believe it's come to this."

Over the course of the day and well into the night, the battles in and around the airport continued. Fighter jets ripped through the sky. The rebels reported that 35 of their men had been killed when a grenade hit one of their trucks. Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko later put the death toll at 40. In clashes near the train station, about two miles south of the airport, stray bullets killed at least one civilian.

By Tuesday morning, according to Ukrainian officials, the army had regained control of the airport. On Tuesday afternoon, however, the insurgents formally asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for military assistance. The Kremlin hasn't responded, but most Western officials believe the Russians have been providing the rebels with supplies, intelligence, and manpower from day one.

Ukraine's newly elected president may end up winning the battle of Donetsk, but his task of winning hearts and minds in the region, and reconciling the locals to Kiev's rule, may prove harder. Most Donetsk residents might not share the rebels' agenda, but resentment towards the Kiev government is widespread. While one poll revealed that only about 30 percent supported secession or union with Russia, another showed that 60 percent had not planned to vote, or had no one to vote for, in the presidential elections.

"We didn't invite the troops here," said Yuri Zhenev, walking hurriedly away from the flying bullets on Kievskiy Prospekt, his wife beside him. "And we want them out."

Poroshenko has said repeatedly that his first trip outside Kiev as president would not be to Brussels, Washington, or Moscow, but to Donetsk. It may turn out to be the visit that defines his presidency, as well as Ukraine's future.

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images


A Probationary Presidency

Ukrainian billionaire Petro Poroshenko won the election. But can he win over the people?

KIEV, Ukraine — Just before 9 p.m. on May 26, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko appeared at Kiev's President Hotel, her campaign headquarters, to concede defeat. Earlier that day, when 80 percent of the votes had been counted, her main rival, Petro Poroshenko, had 54 percent of the vote while she trailed with 13.1 percent. Supporters picked listlessly at chocolate cake in a reception area as her arrival was announced. With the aid of an assistant (she reportedly suffers from back pain), Tymoshenko hobbled across the stage to the podium. She was uncharacteristically brief. "The elections were democratic," she said to a sparse and subdued audience in the hotel amphitheater. "I want Ukraine to be happy and strong."

An hour later across town, the 48-year-old Poroshenko spoke from his campaign headquarters, a grand, stone building on Lavrska Street in central Kiev that once housed the city's military arsenal. Hundreds of supporters and reporters had already spent two hours enjoying wine and the extensive buffet. The mood was triumphant; here, the chocolate cake disappeared quickly. In measured tones he promised to build closer relations with the European Union and tackle the problems facing Ukraine's troubled east. He also declared he would never recognize Russia's March annexation of Crimea. When asked about relations with Moscow, he replied that Ukraine's "sovereignty and territorial integrity" was his priority. Poroshenko's message was clear: Despite the Kremlin's meddling, the spirit of the Euromaidan revolution would live on.

Across Kiev, voters sensed the unique importance of these elections in helping to bring stability to Ukraine. The lines outside polling stations stretched across the capital as thousands queued to vote; even a vicious midafternoon hailstorm couldn't dampen the overall turnout, which is estimated to have been between 55 and 60 percent. "We are here because we want Ukraine to move into the 21st century," said a couple of young IT professionals as they stood in line to vote in the late afternoon. "For years under [former President Viktor] Yanukovych we went backwards. Now we want to go forwards -- with Poroshenko."

But Poroshenko is a complex figure. The oligarch made his fortune in the cowboy years following the Soviet Union's collapse, and questions exist over his past business practices. He made his money not just by asset stripping (the traditional means of acquiring wealth among Ukraine's financial elite) but by building a business. He owns Ukraine's largest confectionery manufacturer, Roshen, earning him the moniker the "Chocolate King," though he also has many other interests, including owning 5 Kanal TV, Ukraine's most popular news channel. Still, by oligarch standards, he is not especially rich. (In March 2013, Forbes estimated his wealth at $1.6 billion; Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man has $12.5 billion.)

Poroshenko has also held a number of ministerial posts under previous governments (notably minister of foreign affairs from 2009 to 2010 and minister of trade and economic development in 2012). He is unquestionably a part of the system. And this is where skepticism over whether he will bring any real (and badly needed) political change to Ukraine begins to show. The general feeling among Kiev's intelligentsia is that the endemic corruption and bureaucracy that has smothered the political system for over 20 years will likely take a generation to fix and is at any rate unlikely to come from an "insider."

"He is an oligarch and oligarchs are part of the reason the country is in such a mess," said Bogdhan, a Ukrainian journalist filming people as they cast their votes at a polling center in central Kiev. "But he is better than most of them," he conceded. "Still, in many ways it's a step back."

Bogdhan's ambivalence is typical of much of the post-election reaction here. As the news filtered out, the overwhelming feeling on Kiev's streets wasn't joy or excitement -- it was, at best, relief. Here, the elections were at least held successfully. Many Ukrainians feared that despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent May 23 promise at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum to respect the elections and to work with whomever was elected, Moscow would attempt to sabotage the process. More than 75,000 police personnel and volunteers were mobilized to ensure security during the vote (less so in many parts of the East), which was not without its scares. Election day began with rumors flooding Twitter that pro-Russian separatists had breached the national voting system, a claim the government quickly labeled a hoax.

"I'm glad it's finished quickly," said Roman, the manager of a pizza restaurant near Maidan, who has seen his earnings fall by around 30 percent over the previous six months and is eager to see the country get back on solid economic footing. "Poroshenko is a businessman; he understands what needs to be done. We hope for at least a small improvement in things."

But Poroshenko will have to deliver more than just a small improvement in things; and he will have to do it quickly. Just as his victory was announced on the night of May 25, in what was almost certainly a deliberate attempt to disrupt the elections' show of national unity, armed separatists seized Donetsk's Sergey Prokofiev International Airport. The president-elect had little time to bask in any post-election glow before being asked for comment on the separatists. "Somali pirates," he replied.

Call it what you will, but the East is clearly Poroshenko's most immediate and most serious problem.

At a news conference held on the morning of May 26, Poroshenko directly tackled the issue of Ukraine's military failings and vowed to make the anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine more effective. "From now on, our soldiers will be much better equipped and much better supplied. All of them will have life insurance and high salaries," he said. Several hours later, two fighter jets reportedly launched airstrikes against the separatists holding the airport.

This unusually rapid response against the separatists over recent months (compared with Ukraine's generally lackadaisical military efforts) is as much a show of political muscle as military muscle.

The truth is, Poroshenko takes office facing both military and political problems. He may have won by a comfortable margin, but the electorate also made its dissatisfaction with the main candidates clear. In an election characterized by predictability, the one surprise was the strength of support for Oleh Lyashko, a former journalist and leader of Ukraine's Radical Party, who received almost 8 percent of the vote.

Lyashko prides himself on not being a traditional politician. He made his name railing against the government's inability to bring the East under control and even formed his own "Lyashko Battalion," which carried out attacks against separatists. He has claimed responsibility for the storming of a local government building in Torez in eastern Ukraine that killed a separatist and critically wounded another. It is an extreme form of activism that has gone down well among a population sick of what it perceives to be the government's sustained military incompetence.

And as expected, voting in the East was widely disrupted. Only 20 percent of polling stations opened across the Donetsk region, with none open in the provincial capital, Donetsk city. Across the region as a whole, only seven out of 12 district electoral commissions were operating. Poll workers were subject to repeated harassment and intimidation as separatists stole ballot boxes and made a point of using them as trash cans. Voter turnout was reportedly only between 10 and 20 percent. Poroshenko may have a clear mandate from the people, but that doesn't extend across all parts of the country.

And though the elections overall will have undoubtedly restored a measure of legitimacy to Ukrainian political life, the fact remains that all mainstream politicians in Ukraine remain on probation. In Maidan, Kiev's central square, the uniformed militia that remains camped out in tents combine deep suspicion of Ukrainian politics with anger about the situation in the East. "These bastards just don't stop," said Olexsandyr, a self-defense member who claims to have fought during Euromaidan, when asked about the airport siege. "Poroshenko needs to deal with them quickly -- and with the same brutality they have been using against us."

But the revolutionaries' support won't be easily earned. Earlier in May, the so-called Maidan Council, the unofficial "governing body" of the people living on the square, decided that the activists would remain there until the parliamentary elections in September, to ensure the completion of Euromaidan at the ballot box. "We will see what Poroshenko does," said Olexsandyr, spitting onto the sidewalk. "If he's no good, he'll go the way of Yanukovych. We'll make sure of that."

Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images