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Ukraine struggles for stability as election looms

It is an all-new Ukraine about to go to the polls to elect a new president on Sunday. It's a country that has been deprived of the Crimean peninsula, but sill has the hope of a better, European future.

Tana de Zulueta is standing next to the map of Ukraine hanging on the wall of the Kyiv office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The 62-year-old Italian is head of the OSCE's observer mission to the presidential election on Sunday (25.05.2014). Pictures of her observers have been fastened to the map with pins, marking the spots where they have been sent. In all, the OSCE has 1,000 people in Ukraine, more than almost ever before.

Much will depend on their reports - for one, whether the election results are recognized by the international community. There are also Russians among the OSCE's observers, and President Vladimir Putin promised on Friday that he would respect the result.

Heavy fighting

Tana de Zulueta. (Photo: Roman Goncharenko)

De Zulueta is cautiously optimistic about Sunday's election

The pins on de Zulueta's map have been distributed evenly across the entire country, with two exceptions - Crimea and eastern Ukraine. No election will take place in Crimea at all, while in the eastern regions only a few observers have been deployed. "We have three teams of long-term observers in Donetsk and two in the north of the Luhansk region," de Zulueta told DW. For security reasons, short-term observers will not be sent to these areas, where pro-Russian separatists have declared new "people's republics." The Ukrainian army is still fighting them, and has taken dozens of casualties in the run-up to the election.

These reports worry de Zulueta, who thinks holding elections in these areas is hardly possible. The situation has deteriorated since the beginning of May, and there are more and more incidents of separatists intimidating the Ukrainian population and destroying election documents. It is what de Zulueta calls a "systematic attempt to block the election." Around five million Ukrainians live in each region, and de Zulueta fears that more than half of the electorate there will not take part in Sunday's vote.

There may well be no voting at all in southern Luhansk and in certain towns in the Donetsk region, though things could fair better in certain rural areas and in the city of Donetsk itself. "Under Ukrainian law, an election is still valid even if only a small number of people actually vote," points out de Zulueta - and she predicts that in the rest of the country the election will probably be "calm and normal."

Petro Poroschenko and Vitali Klitschko. (Photo: REUTERS/Andriy Skakodub/Pool)

Poroshenko persuaded Klitschko not to run for president

Tense calm in Kyiv

On the streets of the Ukrainian capital there are few signs that a quasi civil war is going on around 600 kilometers away to the south-east. The usual traffic jams are the only visible cause of stress. People are going about their business in the summer sunshine. High school graduates are celebrating. There are few campaign posters - instead, the whole city is decked out with holiday advertisements.

But a second glance does show some tension beneath the surface. A lot of young men are wearing uniforms. Announcements on the underground train networks warn of terrorist attacks. Maidan Square - the symbol of the country's independence - is still adorned with the tents of the protest movement. Even some of the barricades are yet to be removed.

The loss of Crimea and the situation in the east has spoiled much of the excitement about the presidential election. Last winter, months of protests by the pro-European opposition on Maidan Square resulted in an outbreak of violence and the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych. He fled to Russia, but still sees himself as the legitimate leader of Ukraine.

But the Ukrainians don't want him back - not even those in his erstwhile strongholds in the east and the south. More than two-thirds of the people no longer consider him the legitimate president, according to a survey published at the end of April by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS).

The Chocolate King

Now his successor is to be elected, by around 35 million Ukrainians. The favorite is 48-year-old billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who could garner over 30 percent of the vote. Nicknamed the "Chocolate King" because of his many sweet factories, the businessman supported the Maidan movement and was able to convince rival opposition politician and Vitali Klitschko not to run. The boxing world champion is running for mayor of Kyiv - another important election taking place on Sunday - and is thought to have a good chance of winning.

Poroshenko is promising a "new life" for Ukraine - no corruption and new prosperity. He wants to lead Ukraine into the European Union and wants to begin negotiations in the coming years. At the same time, he's also promising good relations to Russia - and return Crimea to Ukraine. He has yet to reveal exactly how he proposes to achieve all this.

Yulia Tymoshenko in front of microphones. (Photo: REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)

Many Ukrainians blame Tymoshenko for the loss of Crimea

Fight for second place

Currently fighting for second place in the presidential election are former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Serhiy Tihipko, a former member of Yanukovych's party. Tymoshenko is ahead of Tihipko, but well behind Poroshenko. A lot of Ukrainians still blame her for the loss of Crimea and the situation in eastern Ukraine.

That much is clear from both surveys and from speaking to people on the streets of Kyiv. "Tymoshenko is in control of the current government," one man in his mid-40s told DW, pointing out that both acting President Oleksandr Turchynov and acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk are members of her party. "If the government had been tough, Crimea would still be Ukrainian," he says - and he's not the only one of this opinion.

More power struggles?

In all likelihood, no candidate will reach more that 50 percent oft he vote, and a run-off vote has been set for June 15. But Ukraine's problems won't all be solved then. Under the current constitution, the government has more power than the president, and the current government wants to take even more powers away from him. Whether the winner of the election accepts that remains open to question. A lot of observers in Ukraine think that things will only become clear after a parliamentary election - but the date for that hasn't even been set yet.

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