By Richard Balmforth
Ukraine on Tuesday condemned as “destructive and provocative” Russia’s stance towards elections organised by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine next Sunday, saying Moscow’s recognition of the vote could wreck chances of bringing peace.
The Nov. 2 vote would be being held in defiance of Ukrainian national elections last Sunday in which pro-Western parties, dedicated to holding the former Soviet republic together and negotiating a settlement to the conflict, triumphed.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in an interview with Russian media, said the pending vote being organised by the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” “would be important from the point of view of legitimising power”.
“We expect the elections to be held as arranged and of course we will recognise their results,” Lavrov told Izvestia paper and LifeNews TV.
In Kiev, a Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman said: “Today’s absolutely destructive and provocative statements by Russian representatives, including the foreign minister, will be interpreted by the terrorists as encouragement by Russia to hold the illegal elections of Nov. 2.
“The Kremlin is consciously making the situation worse … In such an extraordinarily fragile situation, this is an irresponsible step by Russia which can threaten the peace process,” the spokesman, Yevhen Perebynis, said in a statement.
The dispute over the rebel vote has deepened the discord in the geo-political tussle between Russia and the West over the future of Ukraine, going back to the overthrow by protesters of the country’s Moscow-backed president in February.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose own political group was a big winner in Sunday’s parliamentary election, also weighed in against the “pseudo-elections” planned by the rebels.
They “grossly contradicted the spirit and letter” of international agreements reached in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, in September, he was quoted as saying on his website.
Western governments, at odds with Russia over the future of Ukraine whose pro-Western leadership wants to move the country westwards, have also condemned the Nov. 2 separatist ballot.
On Monday US President Barack Obama expressed support for Kiev, saying Washington would not recognize any election held in separatist-held areas that did not conform with Ukrainian law.
The separatists, who are entrenched in strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk, see the vote as a way to underscore their independence from Kiev.
Moscow supports the rebels, but it denies Ukrainian and Western accusations that its troops have taken part in fighting against government forces in a conflict that has killed more than 3,700 people.
At the heart of Kiev’s dispute with Moscow is the pro-Europe direction pursued by the new leadership under Poroshenko directed at shifting the country of 46 million people further away from Russia’s orbit.
When street protests in Kiev overthrew the Moscow-backed leader, Victor Yanukovich, last February after he spurned a deal that would have deepened relations with the European Union, Moscow denounced what it termed a “fascist coup”.
Russia went on to seize and annex the Crimean peninsula and back the separatist rebellions in the Russian-speaking east which historically are closer to Russian culture and outlook.
A further irritant in relations are supplies of gas to Ukraine from Russia, its biggest energy provider. Moscow has halted gas shipments to Ukraine in a row over the price and unpaid bills, alarming the EU which gets a third of its gas needs from Russia, half of this via pipelines through Ukraine.
With the vote count almost complete in Ukraine’s election, the People’s Front of Prime Minister Arsenic Yatseniuk held more than 22 percent – slightly ahead of the Poroshenko bloc which was on 21.80 percent.
With at least three other pro-Europe parties among those which are now certain to be represented in the 450-seat parliament, the outcome confirmed Ukraine’s sharp tilt towards Europe away from Russia after months of turmoil and war.
Poroshenko should have no difficulty in putting together a majority of support in parliament to be able to steer through laws aimed at reforming a corruption-ridden system based on patronage and at bringing in reforms to make Ukraine eligible for a future in the European mainstream.
But although he is likely also to secure support for his peace plan from other parties, much depends on the next moves of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the main backer of the rebels, who can still influence events.
Russia opposes Poroshenko’s plans to join the EU and is seeking to unstitch a landmark association agreement between the EU and Ukraine. As well as being able to exert pressure over gas supplies, Putin could also remove trade concessions from Kiev if it leans too sharply towards the West.