ARUN RATH, HOST:
In Ukraine, billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko is claiming victory after exit polls in the country's presidential election show him with 55 percent of the vote. Poroshenko, known as the chocolate king because he made his fortune in the candy business, appears to be on his way to victory in the first round of voting, avoiding a runoff with his nearest rival. While the election went fairly smoothly in most parts of Ukraine, polling places were closed in much of the two eastern regions where pro-Russian separatists have declared independence.
International election monitors withdrew their teams because of security concerns and the region's largest city has no polls open at all. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Local election officials in Donetsk reported that armed men had invaded their polling centers in the past week, seizing election materials and refusing to allow the vote to take place. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe polled its election observers from the city because of fears for their safety. But the committee for open democracy kept its eight-member team in place, planning to document the fact that polling places were not open.
Team spokesman John Maraz says his group set out early to visit a polling place in the center of the city. But as they drove near the polling place...
JOHN MARAZ: I immediately noted that there were about 20 armed and camouflage-clad separatists who immediately started to move towards our auto. One of the young men in that group pointed a pistol at me.
FLINTOFF: Maraz says the driver quickly backed out of the situation and the team returned to their hotel. Once back Maraz says the observers received other information that led them to believe that the situation was dangerous, although he won't discuss that information.
MARAZ: So we made a decision for the sake of our own security to come to the airport and take the first flight available back to Kiev this evening.
FLINTOFF: Instead of an election, Donetsk, a city of about one million people, got a separatist rally held in Lennon Square. Although Russia has not responded to a separatist request to annex the region, several thousand pro-Russian activists listened avidly as the separatists proclaimed Prime Minister Alexandr Boroday promised that aid was on the way.
PRIME MINISTER ALEXANDR BORODAY: (Through Translator) I know it's difficult for you right now. Everyone is tired of the situation that Donetsk and new Russia are in. Be sure that Russia is with you and help is really close, real help.
FLINTOFF: Some parts of the region where separatists don't wield control reported that voting proceeded normally. In the Port of Mariupol, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov mobilized his steel workers to take back the city from separatists. And voting there was reported in more than 100 polling centers. Voting also proceeded normally in the town of Krasnoarmeysk, about an hour-and-a-half's drive from Donetsk. The area is controlled by Ukrainian troops although there have been deadly clashes on the highway in the past week.
Election Secretary Olga Maximova her polling place in the gym of a local school.
OLGA MAXIMOVA: (Through Translator) People are worried of course because of the instinct for self preservation, but they come because of the principle.
FLINTOFF: Maximova said the turnout was low so far, only about 6 percent of registered voters by 1 o'clock in the afternoon. One person who did vote at the school gym was Alena, a lawyer who didn't want to give her last name because of the fear of retaliation. People have been kidnapped and beaten for speaking out against the separatists. She admitted that she didn't feel safe because the polling place has not police or armed guards nearby. But she said this.
ALENA: (Through Translator) I'm here for my future and my future children. I believe in a normal, better tomorrow. I need to decide my destiny now.
FLINTOFF: It seems likely that voting in the eastern regions of Ukraine will be spotty at best. The separatists say that will taint the legitimacy of the national vote, but they're the ones who prevent it, much of the vote here from happening. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Donetsk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.