Voters in eastern Ukraine town defy rebels

National guard oversees security Krasnoarmeysk, where some accuse it of killing civilians

Voters in a polling station in Krasnoarmeysk, eastern Ukraine, which defied a rebel boycott of yesterday’s presidential election. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Voters in a polling station in Krasnoarmeysk, eastern Ukraine, which defied a rebel boycott of yesterday’s presidential election. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Mon, May 26, 2014, 20:00

“These people are simply heroes,” says Olga Kvitka, looking around at four unsuspecting colleagues sitting quietly behind a trestle table. A Ukrainian flag covers the wall behind them. “There should be 15 of us here, but only we five turned up. The rest were too scared. But the election is taking place, and people can vote.”

They staffed a school polling station yesterday in Krasnoarmeysk, a town in the eastern region of Donetsk that has been partly taken over by separatist rebels. Across Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk – which together are home to about one-fifth of Ukraine’s 46 million population – masked gunmen in recent days stormed polling stations and stole voter lists and official stamps.

Dozens died in clashes

But fear was their main weapon in crippling elections in the east, where dozens of people have died in clashes between separatist fighters and government troops.

The rebels abducted members of local election commissions, and threatened to use violence to ensure that much of eastern Ukraine did not help choose the country’s new president.

The million-strong city of Donetsk was strikingly quiet, with few drivers on the roads, shops shuttered and parks almost empty on a warm and sunny Sunday.

Outside its separatist-occupied regional administration building, opponents of the election smashed empty ballot boxes with wooden clubs; not a single polling station in the city was open.

In Krasnoarmeysk, however, ballots fluttered into similar boxes and voting proceeded without problems.

“Everyone’s sick of this chaos. I’ve never seen so many men wandering around with guns, and I served in the military,” said Ivan Shibalov (68).

“We need to elect a proper leader who can calm things down. I voted for Poroshenko – he’s a capable man.”

Chocolate magnate
At Krasnoarmeysk’s town hall, men in camouflage carrying Kalashnikov rifles stood watch beside silver pick-up trucks emblazoned with the name of their national guard unit: “Dnepr”.

The men are based in the stable and solidly pro-Kiev region of Dnepropetrovsk, just a few miles west of Krasnoarmeysk, which itself sits in an island of government-controlled territory in Donetsk province.

Two weeks ago, when the separatists held an independence referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk, two men were killed in Krasnoarmeysk when gunmen claiming to be members of Dnepr opened fire. The unit denied involvement.

“I don’t think they’d come back if it was really them,” said Viktor, a local sports administrator.”We need a legitimate new leader.”

“Ukraine is a big country. So even if a few million people in the east can’t have their say, the vote should be respected.”