Ukraine defends vote despite unrest, Putin pledges ‘respect’

KIEV/DONETSK (Reuters) – Vladimir Putin promised that Russia would work with the new Ukrainian administration formed after a presidential election today that the Kiev government said yesterday would anchor the ex-Soviet state to the West.

In the eastern region where at least 20 people were killed in recent days, there was less violence, though in fighting near Slaviansk between pro-Moscow rebels and Ukrainian paratroopers, unconfirmed local media reports spoke of up to four deaths.

The separatists reject an election run by a fascist “junta” in Kiev and national electoral officials said few ballot papers had yet been issued in two eastern regions with over 12 per cent of the electorate, implying most there will be denied a vote.

Denouncing an “atmosphere of terror” directed against local electoral officials in the east, Europe’s OSCE democracy agency pulled out most of the dozens of international monitors it had posted to Donetsk region out of fears for their security.

Polls point to a resounding win for a pro-Western candidate and a heavy turnout elsewhere in the country of 45 million.

President Putin’s verbal olive branch after months of East-West feuding and his annexation of Crimea, came at an economic forum where, having earlier acknowledged US and EU sanctions were hurting the Russian economy, he played down talk of a new Cold War and denied a desire to rebuild Moscow’s Soviet empire.

Though he renewed criticism of Western powers for backing what he called a coup in February against the last elected president, his ally Viktor Yanukovich, Putin said: “We will respect the choice of the Ukrainian people and will be working with the authorities formed on the basis of this election.”

Ukraine’s government and its Western allies, however, view the actions of pro-Moscow militants in disrupting voting in the heavily populated, Russian-speaking east as supported by the Kremlin to deny the new president legitimacy and give Russia perpetual leverage to exert its influence over its neighbour.

Putin again protested Russia’s innocence and its desire to see Ukraine stable after months of worsening national divisions.

His assurances were welcomed by the leaders of France and Germany who spoke to Putin in a three-way telephone call that underlined the importance of Ukraine and Russia to a European Union that holds elections to its own EU parliament on Sunday.

A statement from the office of French President Francois Hollande in Paris said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had “taken note” of Putin’s comments on working with Kiev’s new leaders and that all three backed a national dialogue with OSCE support to resolve the crisis and amend Ukraine’s constitution.

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