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Ukraine's Presidential Election Is The Least Of Its Worries

"I can't even tell you how things are — in two hours it'll be completely different."

Posted on May 24, 2014, at 3:05 p.m. ET

Marko Djurica / Reuters

Armed pro-Russia rebels stand guard during celebrations to mark Victory Day in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine on May 9.

DONETSK, Ukraine — As Ukrainians prepare for snap presidential elections Sunday, the biggest question is less who will win than how much of the country they will have left to govern.

The eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk — strongholds for disgraced former president Viktor Yanukovych until he fled the country in February — are now mired in almost total chaos, leaving the region on the brink of an abyss from which it may not be able to return. Presidential candidates openly fret that Ukraine's troubled 21-year existence as an independent state — long mired by corruption and infighting and now buckling under pressure from Moscow — may no longer be tenable as we know it.

"Our fault as politicians is that we couldn't make the state stronger," said Mikhail Dobkin, who is running on the ticket of the Party of Regions, formerly run by Yanukovych. "Now, in the face of external aggression, people haven't united, but become more divided."

If the abrupt flight of Yanukovych and his entourage allowed a new government to form in Kiev, it simultaneously created a vacuum in Donetsk, where they had monopolized political power and security appointments for more than a decade. Local voters who had long turned out in droves for the Party of Regions suddenly found themselves unrepresented and faced with a government of forces their political masters had long taught them to hate. Kiev's interim government, formed by parliament after Yanukovych fled, includes many of his longtime enemies dating to 2004's Orange Revolution, when they led protests that stopped his becoming president.

For years, the Party of Regions financed campaigns to teach Donetsk that the rest of Ukraine was "fascist" and reinforce its mentality as an enclave within Ukraine, according to documents found at its office in Kiev and published on news site this week. Russia and its state media have run with the meme in recent months, claiming that the new government is controlled by nationalist and neo-Nazis intent on oppressing Russian speakers. In March, Dobkin was arrested for creating a Party of Regions-backed separatist movement that collapsed on the day Yanukovych fled. The charges were dropped five days after Dobkin did an about-face and won the party nomination by running on the slogan, "A United Ukraine."

"The Party of Regions built all its election campaigns from the last seven years around the idea that 'there's us in the Donbass, and there's the rest of Ukraine — let's see who's stronger," Sergei Furmanyuk, a local investigative journalist, told BuzzFeed, using another name for the region. "Anything that's brought here from another region is immediately interpreted as aggression."

Traces of the Ukrainian state in Donetsk, the leafy, sleepy capital of Ukraine's industrial heartland with a population of one million, are increasingly hard to find. The police, which Ukraine's interior ministry says are mostly still on Yanukovych's secret cash payroll, have all but disappeared from the streets. Russia's state bank is the only one in town whose ATMs reliably dispense cash.

Separatists are hard at work creating a new state, but with little recognition or success. On Saturday, two competing groups simultaneously declared the creation of republics comprised of a swath past Crimea to the Romanian border through Ukraine's Russian-speaking southeastern corridor within an hour of each other. Neither appears to have much support. Rallies by the statue of Lenin on the central square only attract a few hundred people at a time, and the city mostly remains peaceful. The separatists have little physical presence beyond the few government buildings and checkpoints on the city's outskirts that they control.

Nonetheless, the lack of a coherent, organized mass separatist movement has arguably been the biggest problem for Kiev's central government, which instead has to deal with a sprawling, shifting morass of sporadic violence it seems unable to contain. Roman Svitan, a security adviser to Kiev-appointed Donetsk governor Sergei Taruta, estimates there are between 1,500 and 2,500 different armed groups active in the province, their membership ranging from one to 200 and their number changing multiple times every single day. "I can't even tell you how things are — in two hours it'll be completely different," he said.

Though security officials from Kiev claim that the entire country will be able to vote, the spread of the militias is likely to deter the election in vast swaths of the east. Researchers for Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of violence and intimidation throughout both Donetsk and Lugansk against poll workers, many of whom have since fled. Privately, advisers to Taruta admit that the election may be impossible in at least a third of the province and are considering closing off rebel strongholds such as Slovyansk entirely in the hope of thwarting attempts to attack voting elsewhere.

More worrying, however, is the lack of a clear way to restore order after the election. Billionaire chocolate factory owner Petro Poroshenko is polling well ahead of the other 20 candidates but may not get the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff. A second round would not take place until June 15, creating three weeks of further uncertainty and allowing his expected opponent, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a greater platform to undermine his candidacy.

If Poroshenko wins, he will have to succeed where Ukraine's richest man, Donetsk industrial tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, has failed. A longtime ally of Yanukovych, the reclusive Akhmetov's image as a power broker has been shattered by his failure to stop the uprising in the province where he employs 300,000 people. Many pro-Kiev officials and insiders in Donetsk believe Akhmetov partially funded the initial, peaceful stage of the pro-Russia efforts in early April in an attempt to bargain for the influence Yanukovych's departure cost him, but was taken aback by its sudden turn into a militarized conflict a week later.

Though Akhmetov has angrily denied the claims, first voiced publicly by separatist "people's governor" Pavel Gubarev, the biggest damage to his image has been the abject failure of his loud public campaign to restore order. Patrols of steelworkers he formed in the southern city of Mariupol last week dismantled a few separatist barricades but have failed to stop widespread lawlessness in the city, where multiple ATMs are robbed daily. When Akhmetov called for a general strike at all his businesses to protest the separatists on Tuesday, the only factory open to press, a decrepit Stalin-era metalworks in Yanukovych's hometown of Yenakiyevo, mustered just a few hundred workers who listened to the factory boss' speech for less than 10 minutes before going back to work. "Everyone here is unambiguously against the Kiev government," Vladimir Sadovoi, head of the factory's trade union, told BuzzFeed.

The eventual victor of the presidential election will also still have to make do with Ukraine's underfunded, poorly equipped armed forces, who are suffering increased losses in bloody battles with militia. Their failure to dislodge the rebels has seen the spawn of numerous pro-Kiev groups who carry out unsanctioned vigilante attacks. As a result, many locals have taken to believing conspiracy theories, heavily promoted on Russian state television, that "fascists" controlling the Kiev government are sending irregulars and mercenaries to kill them.

It could be worse. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Moscow would "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" and work with Ukraine's new president, easing fears he would make good on repeated threats of an armed invasion. Separatists' requests to join Russia have also been ignored. But with the conflict still at a low boil, even he may be unable to persuade them to lay down their arms and vacate their strongholds.

"The genie has been let out of the bottle," said Inna Bogoslovskaya, a lawmaker and former member of the Party of Regions. "The process has been set in motion. Nobody can stop it now."

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    Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71

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A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.