KIEV: Ukraine was voting on Sunday in a presidential election seen as the most important in the country’s history as it battles a deadly pro-Russian insurrection in the east.
Thirty-six million people are registered to vote, but separatist rebels have threatened to block polling “by force if necessary” in areas under their control in the industrial regions on the border with Russia.
Agence France-Presse correspondents said there were few signs of polling stations open in the east, including the main hub of Donetsk where the insurgents declared their own independent state earlier this month in defiance of Kiev.
“Ukraine is now another country so I don’t see why we should take part in this election,” said one woman in Donetsk city center who gave her name as Elisabeta.
“It doesn’t matter what the result is, it doesn’t concern us today,” she added.
The West regards the vote as a crucial step in preventing Ukraine from disintegrating further, after Russia seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March, and has warned the Kremlin of further sanctions if it disrupts polling.
Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk had issued an appeal for voters to turn out in force on Sunday to “defend Ukraine” in the face of a crisis that has plunged relations between East-West relations to a post-Cold War low.
“This will be the expression of the will of Ukrainians from the west, east, north and south,” he said on Saturday.
Correspondents said voters were flocking to the polls in the capital Kiev and the western nationalist bastion of Lviv.
President Vladimir Putin—authorized by parliament to invade Ukraine if necessary to “protect” ethnic Russians—had appeared to make a major concession Friday by saying he was ready to work with the new Kiev team.
Respect people’s choice
“We understand that the people of Ukraine want their country to emerge from this crisis. We will treat their choice with respect,” he said.
Russia also says it has started withdrawing from Ukraine’s border around 40,000 soldiers and dozens of tank battalions whose presence had raised deep suspicions about Russia’s next move.
Ukraine is mobilizing more than 55,000 police and 20,000 volunteers to ensure security for the vote, being overseen by 1,200 international monitors.
The packed field of candidates features clear frontrunner Petro Poroshenko—a chocolate baron and political veteran who sees Ukraine’s future anchored to Europe—and 17 far less popular hopefuls that include ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko.
The election should give the new president and his government a stamp of legitimacy after pro-European Union protests forced out Kremlin-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych in February, setting off a chain of events that now threaten the country’s unity.
However, opinion polls show self-made 48-year-old billionaire Poroshenko falling just short of the 50-percent threshold needed to avoid a second round on June 15, and three weeks of further political uncertainty.