On Sunday, Ukrainians will go to the polls to choose a new president to replace Viktor Yanukovych, the head of government who was deposed by a popular uprising in February. Barring the possibility of a last-ditch effort to disrupt the polling by armed separatists in the eastern part of the country, or Russian meddling aimed at discrediting the results, the elections could produce a government that is recognized as legitimate by the rest of the world and representative enough of the country's various regions and political factions that all Ukrainians can have some confidence that their concerns will be addressed.
But those are some big ifs. The continuing presence of some 40,000 Russian troops massed along Ukraine's borders within striking distance of Kiev is clearly intended to intimidate the transitional government that organized the elections and embolden Russian-speaking militants in Donetsk, Slovyansk and other eastern cities who have called on Moscow to annex those regions as it did Crimea. This week more than a dozen Ukrainian government soldiers were killed when separatists ambushed a checkpoint they were manning, and although President Vladimir Putin of Russian insists he will abide by the results of the election and that his soldiers have been ordered back to their barracks, NATO has yet to see any sign of a withdrawal by Moscow's troops.
At the same time separatist militants in eastern Ukraine continue to occupy key government buildings in the areas under their control, and news reports suggest they are already attempting to undermine the legitimacy of the election results by shutting down voting sites, threatening poll workers and stealing thousands of blank ballots distributed by the government. It's unclear whether they are simply defying Mr. Putin's public appeal to allow the voting to proceed or if in fact they are secretly acting on Moscow's direct orders. Either way they appear bent on making mischief during Sunday's elections.
In recent days the separatists have faced pushback from Ukrainians who don't want to see their country fragment and who are fed up with the continuing unrest. Last week, steelworkers employed by Ukraine's richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, ousted separatists from the port city of Mariupol, and thousands demonstrated throughout the region on Tuesday in support of Ukrainian unity. There have been reports of angry confrontations between separatist leaders and ordinary citizens furious over damages to their homes and businesses caused by the fighting between the rebels and government forces.
But even if Sunday's elections come off reasonably untainted by intimidation or fraud in most parts of the country, the government that takes office as a result will face enormous challenges, not least of which will be ridding itself of the culture of corruption that has plagued Ukrainian politics virtually from the moment the country first gained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Since then the country has been ruled by a succession of politicians and businessmen (and women) who devoted themselves to systematically looting the country's treasury to enrich themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens.
The February revolution that ousted former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February was in part driven by the public's revulsion against such official corruption. But the front-runner in Sunday's presidential election, Petro Poroshenko, the so-called "Chocolate King" who amassed a fortune from his candy empire, as well as his two main rivals in the race — former prime minister and energy executive Yulia Tymoshenko and banker Sergey Tigipko — all belong to the same oligarchic elite who gained their wealth during the frantic scramble to benefit from the privatization of state assets that occurred after the fall of communism.
Given their backgrounds, whether any of these figures can reform Ukraine's entrenched traditions of financial corruption and political favoritism remains in doubt. A free and fair election that produces a clear winner acceptable to the majority of Ukrainians would bring stability to the country, but it would represent only the first step toward the sweeping changes the country requires. A new government that contents itself merely with carrying on business as usual is bound to quickly lose whatever legitimacy it initially enjoyed among voters and deepen the country's crisis. Ukrainians, and their would-be partners both in the West and in Russia, deserve better this time.
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