Ukraine defends vote despite unrest, Putin pledges 'respect'Saturday 24 May 2014 20.55
Vladimir Putin has promised that Russia would work with the new Ukrainian administration formed after a presidential election tomorrow that the Kiev government said would anchor the ex-Soviet state to the West.
In the eastern region, where at least 20 people have been killed in recent days, there was little violence today.
But pro-Moscow separatists again rejected an election run by a fascist "junta" in Kiev and national electoral officials said few ballot papers had yet been issued there, implying most 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.
He earlier acknowledged US and EU sanctions were hurting the Russian economy, Mr Putin 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 Yanukovych.
Mr 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.
Mr 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 Mr Putin in a three-way telephone call that underlined the importance of Ukraine and Russia to the EU.
A statement from the office of French President Francois Hollande in Paris said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had "taken note" of Mr 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.
The interim Kiev leadership, who held a pre-election prayer meeting with religious leaders today seeking divine aid for the country's recovery, have offered greater autonomy for the east.
But they reject Moscow's call for a looser federation and its claims of discrimination against Russian speakers.
Polls point to a resounding victory for pro-Western allies of the interim government on a turnout expected to be high, even allowing for the absence of Crimea and two big eastern regions.
Billionaire businessman and former minister Petro Poroshenko could win outright by passing 50% in tomorrow's first round.
But with 20 other candidates he may be forced into a runoff with former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, a distant runner-up in polls.
Though both have been involved in a feuding political and business elite that has failed to break a cycle of epic-scale corruption and national impoverishment and disunity since the Soviet collapse 23 years ago, the leading candidates carry the hopes of many Ukrainians desperate for a fresh start after rising up against their leaders for the second time in a decade.
Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said in a televised address urging people to take their responsibility to vote and show "we cannot be intimidated" that the new president would make the first foreign visit to Brussels.
Many Ukrainians, especially in the east, where businesses trade with Russia and fear competition from the EU, are wary of opening up the economy.
Millions, however, and not only in more nationalistic, Ukrainian-speaking areas in the west, are keen on the prospect of travelling freely in Europe without a visa.