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Crisis-hit Ukraine scrambles to run disputed election

Ukraine's pro-Western authorities are scrambling to organise a presidential election to shore up their democratic credentials and hold the fragile country together but Russia has already attacked the vote as "destructive".

KIEV: Ukraine's pro-Western authorities are scrambling to organise a presidential election to shore up their democratic credentials and hold the fragile country together but Russia has already attacked the vote as "destructive".

US Vice President Joe Biden has described next month's vote as "maybe the most important election in Ukrainian history". But many doubt it will go ahead amid ongoing violence in the country's eastern regions and tensions with Russia.

Casting a long shadow over the nationwide poll, scheduled for May 25, is the threat by pro-Russian protesters in flashpoint eastern cities to hold referendums on May 11 on autonomy from the central authorities in Kiev.

Russia has already warned that holding an election without "common ground" with Ukraine's pro-Russian voters would be "very destructive for the country".

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told state-controlled RT television this week that Moscow would only "recognise something that would be based on the all-inclusive process".

"To call an election without finding some common ground with the east and the south of Ukraine I think is very destructive for the country," added Lavrov.

Polls show that in some eastern parts of the country, 70 per cent of citizens do not recognise the pro-Western authorities in Kiev.

And with pro-Russian protesters occupying official buildings in 10 or so eastern cities, logistical problems could also hobble the holding of the elections, warned local political analyst Kirill Cherkashin.

"Even if the elections take place, it will be very difficult to organise normally in the Donetsk region," he told AFP, referring to one of the crisis-hit eastern parts of the country.

However, Oleksandr Chernenko of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, a non-governmental organisation that monitors elections in the country, was more optimistic.

"The turnout will be high, at around 70 per cent across the country. In the east, more than 50 per cent of voters say they would participate in a presidential election," he told AFP.

He added that the 23 candidates -- at least three of whom are overtly pro-Russian -- "represent the whole spectrum" of Ukrainian politics.

The two favourites to win the vote are chocolate tycoon and self-made billionaire Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko -- both ardent supporters of the pro-Western protesters who toppled former Kremlin-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych in February.

Many in Ukraine voice a determination to hold an election to give their country a stronger, more democratically legitimate government to stave off what they see as Russia efforts to destabilise its neighbour.

"This election has to take place whatever it costs. The destabilisation is due to the fact that the country does not have a legitimate president," said Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fessenko.

Kiev-based politics expert Olexiy Garan told AFP: "Disrupting the presidential election is part of Russia's plan. That's why we have to do everything possible to make it happen."

And the head of the country's electoral commission, Mykhailo Okhendovsky, stressed that the tensions in the east would have "no impact" on efforts to hold the vote.

The election will take place "whatever the political weather", he vowed.

Analysts in Kiev also insisted that the proposed May 11 referendum on autonomy in eastern regions would not have a significant impact on national politics.

Unlike March's disputed referendum in Crimea, in which nearly 97 per cent of voters opted for Kremlin rule, pro-Russian protesters in Ukraine's east lack the resources to hold a vote, experts said.

"They could call a pseudo-referendum to destabilise the situation but they can't carry it out in Donetsk or in Lugansk," stressed Garan.

"Their demands have an impact in the media but do not represent a political threat," said Vadim Karasev, head of the Global Strategies Institute in Kiev.

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