Still Reeling From Crisis, Ukraine Prepares For Presidential Vote
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block, reporting this week from Dallas, Texas.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
I'm Robert Siegel in Washington. And we begin this hour with two questions: What's ahead for Ukraine after the Russian annexation of Crimea, and where might Russia act next? We'll start with the prospects for firming up Ukraine's democracy.
BLOCK: A presidential election is set for May 25, and there are two main contenders. One is a billionaire candy-maker-turned-politician, Petro Poroshenko; the other is the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Neither is popular in the east or south, and it's unclear if people in Crimea will be able to vote. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Ukraine.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: After the lightning-fast changes of winter, with the president fleeing and a peninsula disappearing into the Russian orbit, this spring's political shakeups seem almost routine. Ex-boxer Vitali Klitschko, for a time the political voice of protest movement that ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych, is out of the race. He'll be running for mayor of Kiev and throwing his support behind billionaire confectioner Petro Poroshenko. Poroshenko is not widely known in the West, but by Ukrainian standards he has relatively broad appeal. Political analyst Brian Mefford says despite being an oligarch, his opposition credentials are solid. He was a prominent backer of both the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the recent pro-European demonstrations in Independence Square.
BRIAN MEFFORD: In addition, though, in a time when the country just lost a significant amount of its territory to annexation in Crimea, the voters are looking maybe less for a celebrity and more for someone they see as an accomplished businessman and political professional. Poroshenko has a long resume as foreign minister, minister of economics, former national security chief, member of parliament and so forth.
KENYON: Poroshenko's most prominent rival is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. She has promised to be the candidate of Ukrainian unity, but analysts say her sluggish performance in the polls reflects a feeling among voters that the former heroine of the Orange Revolution has turned out to be cut from the same cloth as other members of the political establishment.
MYKHAILO MINAKOV: As a leader, Yulia Tymoshenko is not a friend of democracy.
KENYON: Professor Mykhailo Minakov, president of the Foundation for Good Politics, says like other top Ukrainian politicians, Tymoshenko is linked to a number of oligarchs who have raised their visibility since she was freed from jail and declared her interest in running for president. He says it's possible that Tymoshenko and her Fatherland Party could provide the stability to help Ukraine move toward a better government in the future, but no one should confuse them with pro-democracy reformers.
MINAKOV: It's not a democratic party, it's not a liberal party, and it's not the party that brings new quality in economic policies or political liberties.
KENYON: In eastern Ukraine, ex-President Yanukovych's territory, there's little enthusiasm for either frontrunner. Here in the south in Odessa, a strong pro-Russian minority is also looking for a none-of-the-above option. On the edges of a pro-Russian rally over the weekend, coffee sellers Andriy and Nikita shrug when asked who they would trust to lead the country now:
NIKITA: (Through translator) Now, nobody has any trust. People are coming to power, and still trying to line their own pockets. Nobody thinks about us, absolutely nobody.
ANDRIY: (Through translator) We have these coffee machines. Ukrainian law says they're illegal, but we have to work. In Russia all these laws on coffee carts were sorted out a long time ago.
KENYON: Odessans are also casting an eye toward Crimea, under Russian control but considered by much of the world to be occupied Ukrainian territory. Crimea is also on the minds of election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. OSCE official Spencer Oliver says the group is leaving its options open about where all of its observers will be deployed on May 25.
SPENCER OLIVER: Of course, there are questions about how we can monitor the elections in Crimea, or whether there will be opportunities for the Crimeans to vote in these elections. But so far it's been rather discouraging because the Russians are unwilling to grant access to observers, but we're making every effort to try to accomplish that.
KENYON: Analysts say technical solutions, such as voting online or by mail, probably can't be set up in time, especially without the cooperation of Russia and the local Crimean authorities. As with so much about Ukraine's future, these elections are likely to have a strong flavor of improvisation about them. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Odessa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.