KYIV, Ukraine — An overburdened government, a separatist conflict that threatens to tear the country apart, and the hopes and dreams of millions who have waited more than two decades for meaningful change.
That’s more or less what’s riding on Ukraine’s presidential election this weekend, possibly the country’s most important vote ever.
After many weeks of mounting instability in the country’s east, attention is now focusing on the poll slated for May 25, which experts say will be above all an exercise in legitimacy for a government that’s facing near-insurmountable challenges and looking to put the country’s post-revolutionary chaos behind it.
“People associate the presidential election with the beginning of stabilization,” says Oleksandr Chernenko, director of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine. “People are expecting that all the discourse about the ‘legitimacy’ of the Ukrainian government will be put to rest.”
Not if Moscow can help it.
The first nationwide vote since President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster in February has already been mired by uncertainty, not least over the wave of violent separatism that’s swept eastern Ukraine — that Kyiv’s “anti-terror” operation has largely failed to quell — and Kremlin actions critics say are aimed at sabotaging the election.
That’s led some skeptics to question whether it’s wise or even possible for the authorities to hold the vote.
If the poll goes ahead, it may further aggravate tensions with the separatists in the east and provide the pretext for Moscow, which casts the authorities here as a “junta,” to question the vote’s legitimacy.
If it’s called off, however, Kyiv’s post-revolutionary authorities would lack a crucial mandate they’ve sought since Yanukovych’s departure.
It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation in which Ukraine has few choices.
“Both options are problematic,” says Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst in Kyiv. “But holding the elections in the current crisis is the lesser of evils.”
As far as Ukraine’s leading officials are concerned, preparations are proceeding well for an election that’s guaranteed to remain free and fair.
Russian President Vladimir Putin may have inadvertently breathed more life into the poll earlier this month, when he asked the separatist rebels who have declared “people’s republics” in two eastern regions to hold off on their plans for an independence referendum.
He also appeared to tacitly endorse the presidential vote, calling it a “step in the right direction” while calling for reforms that would devolve more powers to the regions.
Still, those comments followed a long series of dismissals of the elections by other top Russian officials, and they raised serious doubts among critics in Kyiv and abroad about whether Putin was serious.
Armed rebels still control around a dozen cities in the east, which would render a vote virtually impossible in those places.
Separatists in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk say 89 percent and 96 percent respectively voted for "self-rule" in referenda the Kyiv government and Western countries have called illegal.
The leader of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic said in mid-May that the presidential election wouldn't take place in Donetsk because it was now "independent."
Some believe that doesn’t matter.
According to Chernenko, nothing in the electoral law says the nationwide vote would be void if the separatist cities don’t participate.
“One must understand that all of Ukraine can’t be held hostage by the situation that’s unfolding in several cities,” he says.
Besides, he adds, around 90 percent of the country appears ready to hold elections with no major issues.
But even in places in eastern Ukraine where voting will take place, the prospects for a robust poll appear less than promising.
Only about 22 percent of voters in Donbas — the region that includes Donetsk and Luhansk, two of the most troubled regions — say they’ll definitely participate in the election, according to a survey by the Kyiv-based pollster Rating Group. Another 20 percent say they would “probably” vote.
Other experts say that presents Kyiv’s most significant challenge.
“The biggest question right now is how many people in the east will actually vote, to at least create an image of legitimacy for the future president in the eastern parts of the country,” says Ievgen Vorobiov, an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.
But if there’s plenty of drama surrounding the election’s circumstances, the actual contest is far less exciting.
Virtually every poll forecasts an easy victory for Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate magnate who’s successfully navigated the shifting landscape of Ukrainian politics in the past 15 years, trading allegiances numerous times along the way while largely avoiding controversy.
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko — jailed by Yanukovych for more than two years over what critics say were bogus charges — is polling second. But the firebrand politician’s re-entrance onto the electoral stage after her release in February was met with widespread disapproval from many who are wary of her past reputation for corruption and high-profile political battles.
The Rating Group poll found that 43 percent of decided voters would pick Poroshenko, while only about 14 percent would vote for Tymoshenko.
The rest of the nearly two-dozen candidates — mostly old political faces — score in the low single-digits. Moscow’s likely preferred candidate, Mikhail Dobkin, a former governor of the eastern Kharkiv Region, stands virtually no chance.
Pollsters predict a reasonably high turn out of around 75 percent.
Poroshenko, the only oligarch to have openly supported the pro-European uprising against Yanukovych, has earned respect among voters for his political openness and business acumen.
That’s somewhat unlikely for a man who as recently as late 2012 served as Yanukovych’s minister for trade and economic development, and who ranks among Ukraine's richest men in a landscape dotted with oligarchs who've consistently earned suspicion from Ukrainians.
But many voters seem prepared to look past those details. It also helps that he owns Roshen, a well-liked confectionery company whose goods were barred from Russia last year amid a politically charged trade spat with the Kremlin.
“He’s gained strength and experience,” says Svetlana Vladimirovna, a 59-year-old Poroshenko supporter in Kyiv. “I don’t look down on the fact that he’s a businessman — those skilled are needed, too.”
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Since parliament returned Ukraine’s 2004 constitution, which gives more power to the legislature, the new president will have far less sway over internal affairs — especially the economy — than did Yanukovych.
But the head of state is allowed, with parliamentary consent, to appoint the ministers of defense and foreign affairs, as well as the prosecutor general — crucial posts, experts say, for steering Ukraine out of its current geopolitical crisis and reigning in the separatists in the east.
“The presidential elections won’t just sort out the question of legitimacy, they’ll strengthen the mandate for the security services and create a united center of coordination for the ‘anti-terror’ operation,” says Fesenko, head of the Penta Center think tank in Kyiv.
Meanwhile, for voters like Vladimirovna — who says she also took part in the ultimately fruitless 2004 Orange Revolution — the election represents a chance to finally set a democratic course after more than two decades of largely stalled reforms.
Still, she says, clutching a carnation as she stands on Independence Square, the nerve center of the months-long protests in Kyiv, she realizes the vote will provide no easy fix for Ukraine’s myriad problems.
“It’s about life, about time, and about evolution.”