Ukraine crisis: Polling booths deserted in eastern parts of the country

In separatist-controlled regions, election day brings empty streets and locked voting stations

"Elections?" said an elderly woman at what was supposed to be a polling station yesterday. "I'm not sure about that."

Searching for a functioning polling station in Donetsk on the eve of Ukraine's presidential elections proved a frustrating task yesterday. Instead of voting booths, ballot boxes and electoral lists the city's designated polling stations contained fear, confusion and occasional denials that a vote was taking place at all.

"People from the election committee haven't visited us yet," said one of the men managing the building at another voting venue in the separatist-controlled city in Ukraine's east. Anti-Kiev authorities in eastern Ukraine have vowed to disrupt the elections today and have waged a campaign of violence and intimidation towards electoral officials; just a day before the vote is due to take place many polling stations were left unprepared.

In the youth centre that would normally house the polling station for the District 42 electoral commission, a few half-constructed wooden booths were propped against one wall. The room where election officials would usually make their office had been locked by separatists the previous day and the key removed.

At the State Administration Building on Artema Street, one of the major thoroughfares of central Donetsk, the room where the officials would usually prepare for elections was empty and there was no evidence of ballots or preparations for the vote. Policemen overseeing security said that the election officials had abandoned their posts there two weeks ago.

On the second floor of the building, separatists in military fatigues were guarding a room containing unassembled ballot boxes. The men said that a Ukrainian presidential election could not take place inside the "Donetsk People's Republic".

"We asked the Ukrainian government to open a Ukrainian embassy to allow Ukrainians to vote here but they haven't given us permission yet," explained Alexiy Garonon, 25. "You need to understand that it is wrong to organise an election in the territory of another country."

The streets of central Donetsk were empty. Many shops and restaurants had shut and even the city's three branches of McDonald's, often noted for its resilience in times of civil strife, were all closed.

By contrast, in Kiev, there was an uneasy calm across the city with shops, cafes and bars open for business. Many people were reported to have visited voting stations in schools, hospitals and other public buildings before today's election, when long queues are expected.

In Donetsk, Sergei Grichko, a member of the District 42 election committee, said that polling stations would only open on Sunday if they had adequate security. "I wont let people work without good protection," he said.

There will, however, be more than 1,000 observers monitoring the elections. Turnout is predicted to be high in Ukraine's west but it is thought that few will be able to vote in the separatist-controlled areas in the east, where 15 per cent of the population live. Polling will not take place in Russian-annexed Crimea.

Petro Poroshenko, a confectionery magnate campaigning on a pro-Western ticket, is widely expected to win the election. His closest rival is the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. If neither succeeds in gaining 50 per cent of the vote, a second round of elections will be held in June.

It is hoped that the election of a new president will help end the chaos that has engulfed the country in recent months. But there are fears the latest divisions will prove impossible to heal. "People from western Ukraine hate us because their soldiers died here," said Victoria, 30, who was returning from a shopping trip with her father yesterday. "They think we all support the Donetsk People's Republic. In the common imagination now, we are killers."

Her father Vladimir, 55, expressed frustration at both the election and the current situation. "There will be no united country here any more," he said. "I have friends in western Ukraine, we lived together happily. I don't know who didn't like that life. So why has this happened now?"

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