Keeping Watch On Ukraine As It Prepares To Elect A President

Hundreds of western observers are headed to Ukraine to monitor Sunday's presidential election. Russia appears content to let the vote go forward without interference.

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Amid much turmoil, Ukraine is set to hold a presidential election this Sunday. It will be complicated in parts of Eastern Ukraine now under the control of pro-Russian separatists who say voting won't happen in those areas. International election observers are converging on the country in the hope that the vote will help Ukraine turn a corner.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Western policy makers have spent a lot of time in recent months trying to come up with ways to punish Russia, first for annexing Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and now for supporting separatists in the east. That focus might change. With the election just days away, the secretary-general of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Lamberto Zannier, is hoping the west will concentrate more on Ukraine itself.

LAMBERTO ZANNIER: This is a time where we need to focus primarily on Ukraine, on internal Ukrainian programs. We need to address those. And Russia will remain the elephant in the room in this discussion in many ways. But the primary focus now should be on Ukraine; what we need to do to get things right and to avoid that the situation gets out of hand.

KELEMEN: And so he says these presidential elections will be key. Zannier recently told the Wilson Center that the OSCE is planning its biggest ever election monitoring team, about 900 people. The U.S. is sending dozens more, including the president of the Wilson Center, former democratic congresswoman Jane Harman.

JANE HARMAN: We have obvious interests in Ukraine. And beyond our interests in Ukraine, we have an enormous interest in finding a way forward with Russia. And this election could be the watershed in deciding how our relationship with Russia goes forward.

KELEMEN: The good news is that both the U.S. and Russia are part of the OSCE, which is also leading roundtables on the future of Ukraine to consider constitutional changes and ensure the rights of Russian speakers in the country. Harman is hopeful about that. And hopeful that elections can go smoothly, even in areas where separatists are reportedly intimidating voters.

HARMAN: To have polling stations all over the country, to assure that voters can vote in safety and monitors can observe in safety. And to conclude that, hey, gee, this election was fair. But not only that it was fair but that what resulted from this election is a government that is competent, that represents all of Ukraine.

KELEMEN: And she hopes a government that disavows Ukraine's long history of corruption. Eugene Rumer, who runs the Carnegie Endowment's Russia and Eurasia Program, isn't holding his breath about that though. He says the vote won't be a radical turning point in Ukrainian politics.

EUGENE RUMER: Three leading candidates in the presidential election are oligarchs with long histories in Ukrainian business. They are part in parcel of this oligarchic crony capitalist culture. And I think, again, it points to the difficulty that the IMF, the international community, most of all Ukraine will have in changing the course of the country

KELEMEN: The man leading the polls, for instance, is Petro Poroshenko, the so-called Chocolate King, who has business interests in Russia. And that's one reason why Moscow, which initially opposed these elections, may not meddle too much, according to the director of Carnegie's Moscow Center, Dmitri Trenin.

DMITRI TRENIN: Basically they agreed that an election is the least worst outcome now. They know who is going to win, which is very important. They know they can deal with that guy exactly as they dealt with all previous Ukrainian leaders. No big change there. They are - well, not happy but they are prepared to walk down that path.

KELEMEN: Over breakfast Monday, Trenin's colleague, Balazs Jarabik came similar conclusions, lamenting the fact that Russia seems to have gotten what it wants out of the crisis in Ukraine.

BALAZS JARABIK: Oligarchs are back in charge in Ukraine. Ukraine is dismembered. Crimea is Russian. Europe is insecure.

KELEMEN: And while Ukraine may not be heading toward the weak federalist system that Moscow has promoted, it is likely to move in that direction with power devolving from Kiev to the regions.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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