KIEV: With a bloody insurgency raging in the east, the ominous presence of Russian troops across the border and an economy in deep recession, next Sunday’s election will determine the very survival of Ukraine.
But it is unclear whether a large chunk of the population will want to – or be able to – turn out to choose a new president for a country many fear is on the brink of civil war.
The West views the May 25 vote as the only way to end a crisis that began with pro-EU protests in Kiev but spiraled into a wider confrontation after Russia seized Crimea and pro-Moscow rebels took up arms in the east.
“This is the most important election since independence,” said analyst Volodymyr Fesenko at the Penta center for political studies in Kiev. “Ukraine’s very statehood depends on it.”
Dozens have been killed in just a few weeks as the Ukraine military battles against separatists who – armed with everything from Kalashnikovs to baseball bats – have grabbed over a dozen towns and declared sovereignty in the industrial hubs of Donetsk and Lugansk.
But world leaders say ballots not bullets must be used to defuse a crisis that has plunged relations between Moscow and the West to dangerous post-Cold War lows.
Senior U.N. rights official Ivan Simonovic grimly told the BBC he feared the country was approaching “a point of no return,” with echoes of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
A Europe-sponsored peace road map has so far made zero progress, with Kiev’s leaders pointedly refusing to invite the separatists they regard as “terrorists” to sit at the negotiating table.
Both Russia and the rebels reject the legitimacy of the government that took power after Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych was forced out in the bloody climax to months of protests against his rule.
Despite the turmoil, the presidential race has attracted almost 20 hopefuls – but there are no fresh faces among the leading candidates and analysts say their manifestos all appear to be similarly populist.
The clear front-runner is Petro Poroshenko, a shrewd billionaire chocolate baron who was once a minister in the Yanukovych regime but became the chief financier of the Maidan protests against his rule.
Opinion polls give him over 30 percent of the vote, far ahead of the deeply divisive former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, the one-time darling of the 2004 Orange Revolution who was released from jail in February.
Poroshenko has boldly proclaimed he is the man to save the day.
“If I’m elected I will fix the crisis with Russia in three months,” the 48-year-old told students on a campaign visit to the eastern city of Kharkiv.
The United States and its allies – furious over the Crimea annexation and fearful of the estimated 40,000 troops believed to be massed near the Ukraine border – have threatened further sanctions if Russia disrupts the vote.
“Our message is really, quite simple: ‘Let Ukraine vote. Let the Ukrainian people choose their future,’” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last week.
The Kremlin has accused the interim government of being run by “fascists” bent on trampling on the rights of Russian-speakers but rejects allegations it is pulling the strings in the uprising.
It has eased back on its once vehement criticism of the vote but at the same time questioned how it can go ahead under the “thunder of guns.”
The United Nations says the crisis has already cost over 120 lives and led to an “alarming deterioration” of human rights in the east.
And Ukraine’s election commission said that a lack of security means it would be almost impossible to hold the vote in Donetsk and Lugansk, where about 2 million of the country’s 36 million voters are registered.
The separatists proclaimed their own “sovereign” republics in the two industrial hubs after hastily arranged May 11 referendums, dismissed as illegitimate shams by Kiev and the West.
“I can tell you that the elections will not be held in Donetsk, not at all,” said Aleksandr Borodai, a shadowy Russian named prime minister of the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic.”
“Ukraine as a state, in my view, essentially does not exist,” he said. “There is now chaos and anarchy on the territory of Ukraine ... Under these conditions what sort of election can we talk about.”
Analysts say the victorious candidate will have to work quickly to foster national reconciliation while walking a tightrope between many Ukrainians’ desire for closer cooperation with the EU and the country’s now fraught relations with Russia.
The new president will also face the daunting task of introducing painful reforms required under a massive IMF package to prop up the teetering economy and grapple with a Russian threat to cut off gas supplies from early June.
But Oleksandr Vlasyuk, an author of children’s books, voiced hope at a weekend rally in Kiev that all was not lost.
“Our blood is the same as that of the people in the east. We love them and we will not abandon them. We will live in a united Ukraine.”