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Ukrainians Going To The Polls Amid Conflict And Corruption


Voters in Ukraine go to the polls tomorrow in a parliamentary election that could decide whether the country will be able to tackle crises ranging from a war with Russian-backed militants to impending bankruptcy. NPR's Corey Flintoff is on the line with us from Ukraine's capital, Kiev. Corey, Ukraine already had a pivotal presidential election back in May and that strongly seemed to favor the pro-European forces led by Petro Poroshenko. Why should we care about these parliamentary elections?

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Most Ukrainians I've talked with say that we should care because Ukraine's really where the conflict between Russia and the West is being played out right now. If Ukraine succeeds in becoming a Western-style democracy, they say that Russia is going to have to rethink its ambitions to control the countries that were part of the former Soviet Union. And these pro-European Ukrainians say that their country can't succeed unless it has a parliament that's committed to reforms. You know, things like fighting corruption and creating a transparent government.

RATH: It seems, though, the problems Ukraine is facing are almost unsolvable. The Russian-backed separatist - they're fighting in the East. They're running out of money. They have debts. They are facing a cold winter in the middle of a dispute with Russia over natural gas. How does a parliamentary election help all of that?

FLINTOFF: The current Parliament is still made up of a lot of the forces that supported the former president - you know, that was Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president who was ousted in March. Many of those lawmakers have been very resistant to the kind of reforms that Ukraine needs if it's going to align with the European Union.

For one thing, Ukraine needs to build an independent court system. It's got huge problems with corruption, cronyism and government contracting - things like that. Reformers are hoping that the election is going to bring in new faces, you know, people who can make these reforms stick.

RATH: Corey, I know you've been talking to people there and looking at some of the recent polling. Does it seem like the new faces can win?

FLINTOFF: Well, one thing that's clear is that a lot of incumbents are running. Nearly three quarters of the people who are in the current parliament are running for reelection. So analysts say there needs to be a strong voter turnout, or it's actually possible that the new parliament could end up looking pretty much like the old one. Of course, the biggest political bloc is the one that's backing President Poroshenko.

RATH: He's the billionaire candy maker known as the Chocolate King.

FLINTOFF: Exactly right, but he insists that he's absolutely committed to integration with the European Union and also to reducing the power of people like himself - the so-called oligarchs, the billionaires who pretty much controlled Ukraine's politics since independence. And the latest polls show Poroshenko's bloc getting by far the biggest chunk of the vote - maybe 30 percent.

RATH: So the biggest chunk but still not a majority - that means that he'll have to make deals with other parties. Who's out there?

FLINTOFF: Well, the next biggest bloc is the Radical Party. It's led by a populist named Olen Lyashko. He's a very flamboyant guy. He's given to stunts like leading a vigilante posse to Eastern Ukraine early on in the conflict there to arrest separatist leaders. And he also advocates reactivating a Ukrainian nuclear weapons program.

RATH: What are his chances?

FLINTOFF: Well, the latest poll shows his party getting about 13 percent. And he's been bragging that the Poroshenko bloc is going to have to bargain with him and that he could be a kingmaker.

RATH: Is there anyone to challenge him?

FLINTOFF: Well there are several parties that are positioning themselves as pro-European and reformist. And they could be enough to put together a coalition.

RATH: Finally, Corey, what about the people who won't be able to vote in this election - the people in Crimea and the separatist areas in the east of Ukraine? If they're not accounted, how is that going to affect the legitimacy of this election?

FLINTOFF: I've seen an analysis that the voters in those regions combined would make up about 13 percent of the voting population. So it may not be that significant.

RATH: NPR's Corey Flintoff in Kiev. Corey, thank you.

FLINTOFF: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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