Long lines snaked around polling stations in Kiev for Ukraine's crucial presidential election Sunday in stark contrast to the country's troubled east, where heavily armed pro-Russia rebels intimidated voters by smashing ballot boxes and blocking voting centers, AP reported.
Sunday's ballot is taking place despite weeks of fighting in the sprawling eastern regions that form Ukraine's industrial heartland, where pro-Russia insurgents have seized government buildings, battled government troops and vowed to disrupt the ballot.
The election, which authorities in Kiev hoped would unify the divided nation, came three months after the country's pro-Russia leader fled, chased from power by months of protests over corruption and his decision to reject a pact with the European Union and forge closer ties with Moscow.
Yet the question of who was able to vote Sunday loomed large over the democratic process. Some 35.5 million Ukrainians were eligible to vote, but separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk regions — which have 5.1 million voters — have vowed to stop the vote.
Military operations at least appeared to halt for the day but little voting was taking place in the east: The regional administration in Donetsk said only 426 of 2,430 polling stations in the region were open Sunday, and none in the city of Donetsk, which has 1 million people. There was no voting in the city of Lugansk either, but some stations appeared to be open in the Lugansk region, according to local officials.
Polls have shown 48-year old billionaire candy-maker Petro Poroshenko far ahead of the other 20 candidates, but short of the absolute majority needed to win in the first round, so a runoff is expected June 15.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" and said he would work with the winner, in an apparent bid to ease Russia's worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War and to avoid a new round of Western sanctions.
Opinion polls before the last few months of violence showed disillusion with Kiev's politicians in the east but limited appetite for outright secession, according to Reuters.
Putin played down talk of a return to Cold War with the West and dismissed the idea he was bent on restoring the former USSR, whose collapse he has in the past lamented.
Washington and its EU allies are concerned that while Russia may accept the election result, it may use influence in eastern Ukraine to undermine the new president's authority and keep the country beholden to Moscow. Russian officials have questioned the value of holding the vote when the east is in "civil war".
A territory on a par with France and with 45 million people, Ukraine is the second most populous ex-Soviet state and plays a pivotal role in relations between Russia and the EU.
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