Putin Sends Mixed Signals On His Attitude To Ukrainian Election

Russian President Vladimir Putin says Moscow will respect the outcome of the upcoming election in Ukraine but later said he still has concerns about the legitimacy of the vote.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Preparations are going forward in Ukraine ahead of Sunday's presidential election, but not without problems. In eastern Ukraine, separatists have had some success closing polling centers and intimidating election workers. And more fighting has broken out between government forces and separatist militias.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has been sending mixed signals on his attitude to Sunday's vote.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Russian spoken)

CORNISH: Putin speaking there at an economic conference in St. Petersburg. He said Russia would respect the choice of the Ukrainian people and would work with whoever was elected president. But later in an interview, Putin said he still had concerns about the legitimacy of the upcoming vote. He called Ukraine's ousted former leader Victor Yanukovych the legal president of the country. NPR's Moscow correspondent Corey Flintoff is on assignment in Ukraine. And he joins us now from Donetsk. And, Corey, how is Putin's statement calling Yanukovych the legitimate leader in Ukraine playing in Ukraine today?

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, it's getting coverage on Ukrainian media, Audie, although a lot of pro-Ukrainian sources seem to be pretty skeptical about Russia's intentions. It's worth noting that Putin expressed similar doubts before. And what he's saying here is that a legal election can't be held in Ukraine as long as Victor Yanukovych is still the legitimate president of the Ukraine. And he also said it would be very difficult for Russia to build relations with people who came to power with what he called punitive operations still underway in southeast Ukraine. He did say, though, in effect that the elections were better than nothing.

CORNISH: Now, Corey, why are pro-Russian separatists effectively blocking a vote that could give them some voice in the makeup of a new Ukrainian government?

FLINTOFF: They say that the only vote that counts is that makeshift referendum on independence that was held earlier this month. You know, it was widely considered to be so flawed that no other country - even Russia - has formally recognized that vote, although Russia said it would respect the result. The separatist leaders say that it passed overwhelmingly and that this is now an independent state. And they're not going to allow another country - meaning Ukraine - to hold its vote here.

CORNISH: Now, have there been serious efforts on the part of the Ukrainian government to open polling places in these disputed areas?

FLINTOFF: In the Russian-speaking cities where they have fairly firm control, such as Kharkiv, they've been organizing normal voting. There are election commission offices here in Donetsk as well. But a local election commissioner told me today that he hasn't heard from the officials in Kiev. He has heard from the separatists, though, and he told me that they entered his election office and told him and other workers to leave. A lady that I'd talked with today said she wouldn't vote for the frontrunner, Petro Poroshenko, because she sees him as just another billionaire basically who's trying to protect his own interest. But she did say that she wanted to vote because it was her right. In fact, the further we've gotten from city hall, which is the separatist headquarters here, the more people we've found who say they oppose the separatists and want to vote. We do, of course, interview people who say they support the separatists. And by and large, they tend to be older people who grew up in the Soviet Union and still feel a strong affinity for Russia.

CORNISH: Corey, we've been hearing about intense fighting going on in parts of the region. What more can you tell us about that?

FLINTOFF: Well, the worst violence so far happened just yesterday when there were at least 16 Ukrainian troops killed in an attack on a checkpoint about 20 miles from here. We've had reports of at least three more people killed in fighting today. But so far we haven't been able to verify them. And the fighting's also, of course, casting a pall over the election. And it's reducing the chances that people in rural areas will take to the roads to drive to polling places.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff in Donetsk. Corey, thank you.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Audie. My pleasure.

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