KIEV, Ukraine -- Russia and the West maneuvered Tuesday ahead of a seemingly inevitable clash over Ukraine's plan to hold a presidential election May 25 that Western powers view as crucial to restoring stability and that the Kremlin says will be illegitimate, particularly if the government in Kiev cannot first stabilize the country.
Senior Russian officials have repeatedly referred to the provisional government in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, as an illegitimate "junta." From their perspective, allowing an election to go forward when no pro-Russian candidate has a real chance of winning would seriously weaken the Kremlin's influence in Ukraine. It also could help the West coax the country out of Moscow's orbit.
Russia has made clear it wants the election to be delayed. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pressed the point again Tuesday, insisting the interim Ukraine government end bloodshed and amend the constitution to devolve power to the regions -- and that it do so before Ukrainians are asked to choose a new leader. Such changes would presumably address the demands by some pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine for a new system of federalization that would weaken the central government and expand the authority of regional and local officials.
"Holding elections in a situation where the armed forces are being used against part of the population is rather unusual," Mr. Lavrov said Tuesday at a news conference in Vienna, where about 30 foreign ministers met under the auspices of the Council of Europe to discuss the Ukraine situation.
"The criteria of any process involving citizen choice are well known to all," Mr. Lavrov said, according to the Interfax news service. "Elections and referendums must be free and fair, and they must proceed in a situation excluding violence and under objective and unbiased international monitoring."
At the Vienna meeting, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Russian worries about violence were disingenuous, as the Kremlin had fed the conflict in Ukraine to undermine the presidential election. "Russia is clearly intent on preventing or disrupting those elections," he told reporters, according to The Associated Press. He added that the foreign ministers at the meeting supported the vote being held without outside interference.
Further complicating the issue, the Ukrainian parliament decided Tuesday not to hold a national referendum on decentralization at the same time as the presidential election. Some eastern Ukraine leaders who support the provisional government had proposed holding the two votes the same day to help defuse tensions in the country.
The parliamentary vote to delay the referendum, with some lawmakers citing security concerns, seemed certain to reinforce Russia's contention that the unsettled circumstances would not allow for a legitimate presidential election.
At a news conference after the parliament's special closed session, Andriy Senchenko, a member of the Fatherland party, said a referendum could not be held amid the current violence. "Any referendum should take place when there is a guarantee that the will of the people is not expressed at gunpoint," he said, according to Ukrainian news services.
Mr. Senchenko struggled, however, to explain why the presidential vote could still proceed. He said that while the national result in the presidential election would yield an indisputable victor, a referendum could result in different outcomes in different regions. "If we have a referendum in that manner, its results can be used for political manipulations by separatists and their coordinators from special intelligence services from the Russian Federation," he said.
Ukraine's interior minister said Tuesday that four government soldiers and about 30 pro-Russian rebels had been killed in clashes a day earlier near the city of Slovyansk. Rebels also forced down a Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopter, which was later destroyed, in the town of Krasny Liman, near Slovyansk.
Local residents said the pilots landed because one was wounded by ground fire. Another helicopter evacuated them, and a third aircraft, described by witnesses as an attack jet, destroyed the helicopter, so it could not be used by rebels. The husk of the aircraft, with one rotor still attached, sat in a shallow swamp Tuesday, and local men scavenged for scrap.
The rising debate over the election came as officials in Kiev seemed to be girding for violence ahead of a holiday Friday commemorating victory in World War II. On Monday, acting President Oleksandr Turchinov said checkpoints had been established at strategic points around the capital to guard against potential attacks.
While the central government convened a meeting of regional officials Tuesday to discuss a "decentralization" plan, which is viewed as a potential political solution to the separatist violence, the deputy prime minister in charge of drawing up the proposal conceded that it would not be ready before the presidential election.