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Voices From Ukraine's 'Borderlands:' Fears Of 'Chaos' Bring People To The Polls

Voting at a polling station in Mezhova on May 25.
Voting at a polling station in Mezhova on May 25.
MEZHOVA, Ukraine -- Bardak, or chaos, seemed to be the buzzword in this agricultural town of 7,500, as a small but steady stream of people cast their ballots in Ukraine’s presidential election.

Mezhova may be Ukraine’s new “borderlands.” Located on the eastern fringe of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, it is just 20 kilometers from where rebel militias from the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk are fighting for control of the region.

But here, the closest thing to “chaos” is the blizzard of pollen that snows down from the poplar trees corralling the main stretch of road.

Residents here told RFE/RL that the vote, which appears to have been won in the first round by chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko, is their last best chance to keep it that way.

But opinions on how the crisis started and how it should be fixed vary widely.

And when pressed, many admitted that the expectations for the vote were based more on hopes and fears than on a clear vision for the country’s forward movement.

“Of course I have hope,” said Ruslan Marshenko, one of a small number of people here who openly expressed support for the Maidan protest movement that brought tens of thousands of people onto Kyiv’s streets last winter. “It’s necessary to believe and hope that all will be good.”

The 38-year-old building manager put the blame for dysfunction squarely on pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

“There's just general chaos everywhere,” he said, adding that he has relatives in Donetsk. “Many want to survive or just run away.”

But others take a more nuanced view.

Alina Asmukha, whose mother, son, and grandson live in Slovyansk -- a city in Donetsk Oblast that has seen some of the country’s most deadly fighting -- said that her vote would act as a proxy for her relatives’ wishes.

Polling stations in Donetsk, including Slovyansk, were closed after threats from separatist leaders, who rejected the vote as the illegitimate business of “a neighboring country.”

Asmukha, who claimed that “for every two Ukrainians there are three opinions,” would not disclose her choice for president except to say that she cast her ballot “for the east.”

Natalia, a 55-year-old teacher who asked that her last name not be used, said Kyiv was to blame for the rise of the separatist movements.

Using a line of attack commonly leveled at protesters who camped out in Kyiv’s Independence Square, she said, “Our destiny is being decided by those who don’t like to work, who like to get drunk, who in general aren’t particularly authoritative people in society. They sit and decide our destiny.”

Natalia had hoped to mark a “none of the above” box on the ballot but was disappointed to see that there was no such option.

Still, when asked why she didn’t just skip the vote, which she derided as “illegal,” she said voting for “more or less the best candidate” was her only hope for Ukraine reaching a peaceful common understanding between east and west.

It’s a seeming contradiction that appears difficult to rationalize at first. But for many here the election appeared to be a rare opportunity to do something tangible in a situation that otherwise feels largely outside their control.

An election worker who asked that her name not be used because she was not authorized to speak publicly on the vote, expressed some doubt about the vote resolving the crisis that lay just down the road.

“But what else can we do?” she asked.
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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

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