Russia is abusing the human rights of people living in Crimea and other Kremlin-backed parts of eastern Ukraine by using landmines, border delays and online propaganda to discourage them from voting in the Ukrainian election, the head of Canada’s election monitoring mission says.
Lloyd Axworthy, a former Liberal cabinet minister, is leading 160 Canadian volunteers monitoring Ukraine’s presidential elections. Speaking to The Globe and Mail on Monday – one day after the first round of votes in Ukraine – he said the presidential election met international standards in most of the country, but expressed concerns about the situation in Russian-controlled regions where people were unable to vote.
There were no voting stations for Ukrainian citizens in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, and the Russian-controlled parts of the eastern Donbass region, where Ukraine is at war with Russian separatists. Mr. Axworthy said Ukrainians in those areas should be allowed to cross the border to vote, but Russian occupiers have employed aggressive tactics to prevent them from doing so.
“I think the Russians really are abusing the human rights of these people," Mr. Axworthy said. "They have an important right to vote, and I think they are doing everything in their power to try to undermine it.”
He said some of the election observers in eastern Ukraine heard about voters being deliberately held up at the Russian-controlled border, while others couldn’t even get to the border.
“We had discussions with some of the observers who were talking about how in the areas around some of the checkpoints there were land-mine fields that people see as a real risk,” Mr. Axworthy said.
The land-mines issue is particularly important to Mr. Axworthy. When he was Canada’s foreign affairs minister in 1997, Mr. Axworthy spearheaded the Ottawa Treaty, a United Nations convention aimed at eliminating anti-personnel landmines around the world.
In February, two people were killed and a third injured when a minibus hit a landmine while crossing the border between Ukraine and Donetsk, in the Donbass region. The passengers were returning to the rebel-controlled region after collecting their pensions in Ukraine.
Mr. Axworthy said Russia should also be “called to account” for using online propaganda to tell Ukrainian citizens in the Russian-controlled regions the election is not legitimate. He said the Russian interference is a “wake up call” to other democracies, including Canada.
“We’re used to our ways of free elections. ... But maybe not as prepared or as conscious as we should be of how disruptive this can be," Mr. Axworthy said.
A comedian and actor with no political experience led the Ukrainian presidential race after the first round of votes on Sunday.
Volodymyr Zelensky stars in a popular television show in which he plays a schoolteacher who becomes president after a video of him blasting corruption goes viral. Mr. Zelensky is now trying to turn his show into a reality, naming his political party after the TV program: Servant of the People.
Mr. Axworthy said Mr. Zelensky appears to have established a reliable base of supporters, especially among young people, who made a strong showing at the polls on Sunday. But he said there are still questions about how the celebrity candidate would lead Ukraine.
“He won’t make promises so that he doesn’t have to break promises,” Mr. Axworthy said.
“If he gets elected, what will he be able to do to deal with some of the really serious issues? This is a country still at war. It’s a country that’s being highly pressured by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the Russians. They need a strong president.”
Mr. Zelensky secured 30 per cent of votes as of Monday, ahead of incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. With no candidate taking more than half the votes, a runoff election is scheduled for April 21.
Mr. Axworthy said the first round of elections was fair and should generate confidence in Ukrainians for the runoff vote and parliamentary elections later this year.
With reports from Reuters and the Associated Press