The most anticipated election in Ukraine's history is underway today as thousands head to the polls to select the country's next president. There are early reports of record turnout throughout the country, but not all citizens will get to cast their vote—in the eastern regions, many polling stations will remain closed under threat of violence from separatist militias.
Poroshenko, who has consistently outpaced Tymoshenko in the polls, will have to win over 50 percent of the vote today in order to avoid a run-off; polls close at 8 p.m. With violence escalating in eastern Ukraine, there is pressure for the election to be decided today in order to avoid giving separatists more time to foment unrest in the east. Italian photographer Andrea Rocchelli was killed in Slavyansk on Sunday, the Italian Foreign Ministry has confirmed.
Ukraine's interim leaders joined the crowd in Kiev to cast their votes, and Ukrainian citizens around the world headed to local consulates to participate.
Armed pro-Russian forces have pressured many election commissions in Donetsk and Luhansk into not participating in the vote. There are reports that some local officials attempted to open polling stations in Donetsk, but were forced to shut down after gunmen from the 11-story building that is the People's Republic of Donetsk stormed their buildings. In Mariupol, citizens are heading to the polls in groups of 20 in order to protect themselves, Ukrainska Pravda reports.
At some polling stations, separatist supporters destroyed ballot boxes to prevent votes from being cast.
In Donetsk, armed separatist battalions received a warm greeting as they arrived in the city to protest the election. Several of the armed men are from Chechnya, Christopher Miller reports. Residents of Donetsk held a rally for Novorossiya ("New Russia"), which a "separatist congress" reportedly voted to create yesterday. Novorossiya will be comprised of the self-proclaimed "people's republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk, according to ITAR-TASS. One day after its creation, Novorossiya even has its own newspaper.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry has said police are prepared to intervene in the east, but they are unlikely to be able to re-open closed commissions. Some 3,000 supporters of separatism are marching toward the residence of Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, "who has long run the Donbass region like his own feudal estate," as The Economist put it. Akhmetov recently criticized the separatist movement and called for a united Ukraine. Some are chanting "Akhmetov-enemy of the people!" and bearing weapons (live feed of the scene outside Akhmetov's Donetsk home).
Putin has said that he will respect the outcome of today's election, and that he will work with the new president of Ukraine. As Julia Ioffe reports, the Kremlin has washed its hands of the separatist movements in the east, but that doesn't mean they will put down their guns.