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Missing The Vote: Fear Trumps Election Hopes In Donetsk

A Cossack with a whip stands guard at a polling station during the referendum on the status of Donetsk earlier this month. Ahead of the presidential election, armed separatists are doing all they can to intimidate voters.
Donetsk is the largest city in eastern Ukraine, with a population of nearly a million people. But it appears that many -- if not most -- of its voters will not be able to take part in Ukraine's presidential election on May 25 because of the climate of fear separatists have established on the city's streets.

The fear is measurable in the scarcity of election campaign banners on main boulevards and the almost total absence of people handing out election flyers just days ahead of the vote.

Local journalists say the rare campaign banners that are visible belong almost entirely to a single party, the Party of Regions, which in recent years has been the strongest in eastern Ukraine. Its candidate is Mykhaylo Dobkin, who favors a united Ukraine but with greater independence for its regions and is widely regarded as more pro-Russia rather than pro-West.

Yet even his campaign workers have stayed off the street, journalists say, for fear of being attacked by militants of the separatist, self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. The separatists, who have declared the Donetsk region independent and urged Russia to annex it, have vowed to block the May 25 election and have been working hard to do so.
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Oleksiy Matsuka, the editor of the "Novosti Donbassa" news site, says that armed militants have repeatedly broken into the campaign centers set up by the presidential candidates. "They smash equipment like fax and copying machines and computers and destroy election brochures," he says.

Matsuka, whose site is critical of the separatists, recently moved to an undisclosed location outside the city due to fears for his personal safety.

Climate Of Fear, Intimidation

The intimidation of campaign workers mirrors the intimidation of election commission staff. A member of the executive commission for one election district in Donetsk says that representatives of the Donetsk People's Republic visited his district's office on May 22.

Five men wearing flak jackets and carrying clubs demanded the election workers turn over boxes of ballot forms, claiming that "the people" were against preparations for the election. As other armed men stood outside, the visitors removed documentation that included the names and addresses of the commission members. They then presented the commission chairman with a receipt for the material seized.

Other election commission representatives say they have come under similar pressure.
Rinat Ahkhmetov, who owns the Shakhtar Donetsk soccer team, addresses a peace rally held at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk on May 20.
Rinat Ahkhmetov, who owns the Shakhtar Donetsk soccer team, addresses a peace rally held at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk on May 20.

Valeriy Dudarenko, deputy head of another local election commission in Donetsk, recently told the media he expected 60 out the 88 polling stations in his district to be working on May 25.

Ukrainian election officials said on May 23 that the separatists had so far seized more than half of the election commissions in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Kyiv has been encouraging local voters to register in neighboring areas outside of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, although the deadline to do so was May 19.

Constant Threat Of Violence

Local journalists say armed separatists have been able to do so much to disrupt preparations for the vote because they have effectively instituted a reign of terror in the city.

Olena Zashko, an RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent in Donetsk, says the armed militants mainly keep to the area of the regional administration building they have seized downtown and its adjacent park. But when they do move outside of their base, they do so with a level of deliberate violence that terrifies ordinary citizens.

The intimidation strategy has been on full display as pro-unity supporters have gained new energy recently from the decision of regional powerbroker and tycoon Rinat Akhmetov to stand by Kyiv. Akhmetov, who controls the Donbas region's steel and mining industry, has condemned the separatists as "thugs" and called for peaceful rallies against them.

Yet when hundreds of pro-unity supporters attended a rally in Donetsk's Donbas Arena stadium on May 20, separatist militants reportedly waited on the outskirts of the event to ambush individuals who separated from the crowd, beating them with hammers.
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Journalists say similar risks await cars that participate in now daily shows of support for Ukrainian unity by driving through the city at noon blaring their horns. Thugs waiting on street corners hurl rocks at the cars or race out to smash their windshields with bats. "I saw with my own eyes how the separatists chased two cars, attacked and destroyed them completely," RFE/RL's Zashko says.

Residents say the most feared institution in Donetsk today is the regional administration building, which the separatists have occupied for six weeks. The 11-story facility that serves as headquarters for the Donetsk People's Republic is ringed by barricades and barbed wire, and has become notorious for the interrogations and beatings rumored to take place on its fifth and sixth floors.

People targeted by the separatists are snatched off the streets of Donetsk in broad daylight by men in balaclavas and taken into the building. Those who were later released say they were repeatedly beaten, abused, and threatened with death for opposing the self-declared republic.
Merkhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this report in Prague

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