Voters in Ukraine’s east losing interest in presidential election

As chaos and tension continue to rack Ukraine, two notions are coming into focus. The first is that for there to be hope of a unified Ukraine, the May 25 presidential elections have to go well. The second is that the election is unlikely to go well.

Blame the Russians, blame years of corruption, blame an economy that’s never quite adapted to a capitalist world or blame a population that in many areas has never stopped dreaming of a Soviet past.

But more and more here, the reality appears to be that Ukraine is in trouble.

The most recent example came Wednesday in the form of a presidential election poll that found there’s an overwhelming front-runner to win the office _ and that his victory will almost certainly split Ukraine.

The poll, by the Rating Sociology Studies Group, found what’s fast becoming a consensus survey result: Billionaire and former presidential Cabinet minister Petro Poroshenko, better known as the Chocolate King, will win by a wide margin.

But the poll also showed another alarming finding: Sixty percent of the voters in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, or provinces _ the center of the pro-Russia separatist movement _ don’t intend to vote. Two weeks ago, that number was 50 percent. Two weeks before that it was 40 percent.

“Tomorrow it might be 70 percent who won’t be interested in voting there,” said Oleksiy Antypovich, the Rating Sociology Studies Group’s director. If those areas don’t vote, “the election loses legitimacy not only there but in all of Ukraine,” he said.

Antypovich referred to the area as “Donbas,” a word that denotes the poor industrial region in Ukraine’s east and south that includes Donetsk and Luhansk. A win by the wealthy industrialist Poroshenko will only highlight the obvious divisions between Ukraine’s eastern and southern edges, and the rest of the country. “He will not be accepted in Donbas,” Antypovich said.

The declining numbers of those in the east and south who are likely to vote tell Antypovich one thing: “In their minds, the people of Donbas are no longer Ukrainian.”

For the record, the poll found that 51 percent of all Ukrainian voters say they intend to cast ballots, and another 27 percent say they’ll probably make it to the polls.

Poroshenko, who made his fortune in chocolate, attracted about 43 percent of the support in the Rating Sociology Studies Group poll, a result similar to other polls. His closest competitor is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who’s attracting about the same level of support she’s had for some time, almost 14 percent. Other candidates, including those from Donbas, are polling under 10 percent.

Donbas turnout gets even worse if the vote goes to a second round pitting Poroshenko and Tymoshenko. In that case, 66 percent of Donbas residents say they won’t go to the polls.

Such an outcome would hurt a government that’s desperate to show it isn’t the anti-Russia “fascist” clique that Russian President Vladimir Putin has described since February, when pro-Russian then-President Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine.

“This is an election to legitimize Ukrainian authority in the eyes of Ukrainians,” said Viktor Shlinchak, the chair of the Institute of World Policy research center in Kiev. “As elections go, it’s the most important in our history.”

The signs of a nation unraveling, however, are everywhere. Tuesday, during a closed-door session of the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, representatives of the Communist Party and the rival nationalist Svoboda party almost came to blows after Communist leaders allegedly suggested that the only legitimate way forward was to dissolve Ukraine into pieces. To stop the session from becoming a brawl, the Rada banned the Communists for a day.

Of course there are other signs. In Slovyansk in Donetsk oblast, Ukrainian forces and an estimated 800 Russian separatists continued their armed conflict, one that’s already resulted in what are estimated to be dozens of deaths. In Odessa in the west, where a riot ended in more than 40 deaths Friday, tensions continue to mount.

Earlier this week, the national election commission pronounced itself “physically unable to ensure that lists of voters are made in the normal mode” in the east.

Vasyl Myroshnychenko, considered one of Ukraine’s more insightful analysts, worries that the mayhem plays into Russia’s narrative that Ukraine is a failing state. The cure, he said, would be a robust election turnout.

“Ukraine needs to come out and vote,” he said. “Ukraine needs to believe in Ukraine again.”

Speaking to British radio during a visit to Ukraine, British Foreign Secretary William Hague offered similar hope for the presidential vote.

“Ukrainians cannot be bullied out of having their elections by disorder that is deliberately fomented and coordinated from another country, in this case from Russia,” he said. “They are entitled to have their democratic choice, to choose their own president. Hopefully, that new president will be a unifying figure.”

The polls suggest otherwise.