Safety Of Ukraine's Presidential Election In Doubt In The East

Ukraine votes next week in a presidential election, but there's still separatist unrest in the east. NPR's Corey Flintoff tells NPR's Lynn Neary how a local oligarch restored peace in one city.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. A week from today, Ukrainians vote in a critical presidential election. The winner will replace the interim leader who's been serving since Ukraine's Russian-backed president fled after a wave of protests.

But there are doubts about whether the election can proceed in parts of eastern Ukraine where separatists have been taking over government buildings. NPR's Corey Flintoff is in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. He joins us now. So good to have you with us, Corey.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: My pleasure, Lynn.

NEARY: Now, Corey, is this vote really going to happen?

FLINTOFF: Well, it looks as if the preparations are going forward pretty smoothly in west and central Ukraine. You know, those are the areas where the government has the firmest control. The big question mark is here in eastern Ukraine where insurgents have said they won't allow the election to take place.

You know, two of these regions held makeshift referenda last week, and they claimed victory in declared independence. Now the government has said it's preparing thousands of polling places in this area, and it really remains to be seen whether they can protect those polling places and ensure a safe vote.

I talked with a couple of American NGO workers last night who were here in Donetsk to do advance work for foreign observer teams, and they said there are going to be some places in the region where they just won't allow their observers to go because they can't assure their safety.

NEARY: Well, how valid will this election be if that's the case in eastern Ukraine?

FLINTOFF: That's very hard to say. I mean, of course, you know, one of the factors here is what Russia is going to say about it. And their foreign ministry has already come out and said, you know, it doesn't seem that there can be a fair election held, you know, with military operations going on in this area, with the Ukrainian military attacking pro-Russian separatist positions.

And if it's not possible to really have a big turnout from a lot of different polling places, Russia, of course, is going to say that it's not valid. And of course, the pro-separatists will say that, too.

NEARY: Well, you've been in one city where apparently there was a turnaround in the security situation in the past week. Tell us what's been going on there.

FLINTOFF: Yes, that was Mariupol. It's a port city that depends on a couple of big steel and metalworking plants that employ hundreds of thousands of people. The main steel plant is called Metinvest, and it's owned by Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov. He's been kind of sitting on the fence for a while, not taking sides in the conflict.

But last week, he issued a statement saying that this region has no future unless it's united with Ukraine. So Akhmetov deployed some of his workers and he had them join patrols with the local police. That seems to have forced the separatist leaders to make a deal with the local authorities to withdraw from these buildings they've been occupying and to allow their barricades to be taken down.

And on Thursday, the steelworkers moved in with the heavy equipment and they pulled out all these barricades, you know, all these tires and sandbags and what not. And when we got there, all the barricades had been cleared away. There was, you know, nothing much but trash left behind.

NEARY: NPR's Corey Flintoff joining us from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Thanks for joining us.

FLINTOFF: My pleasure, Lynn.

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