Ukraine holds vote seen as key for restoring order

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An elderly woman casts her vote in the presidential election in the eastern town of Krasnoarmeisk, Ukraine, Sunday, May 25, 2014. Ukraine’s critical presidential election got underway Sunday under the wary scrutiny of a world eager for stability in a country rocked by a deadly uprising in the east. While there were no immediate reports of violence, pro-Russia insurgents were trying to block voting by snatching ballot boxes and patrolling polling stations.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

An elderly woman casts her vote in the presidential election in the eastern town of Krasnoarmeisk, Ukraine, Sunday, May 25, 2014. Ukraine’s critical presidential election got underway Sunday under the wary scrutiny of a world eager for stability in a country rocked by a deadly uprising in the east. While there were no immediate reports of violence, pro-Russia insurgents were trying to block voting by snatching ballot boxes and patrolling polling stations.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Pro-Russian militants smash ballot boxes in front of the seized regional administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine, Sunday, May 25, 2014. Ukraine’s critical presidential election got underway Sunday under the wary scrutiny of a world eager for stability in a country rocked by a deadly uprising in the east. While there were no immediate reports of violence, pro-Russia insurgents were trying to block voting by snatching ballot boxes and patrolling polling stations.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Pro-Russian militants stand by ballot boxes they smashed in front of the seized regional administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine, Sunday, May 25, 2014. Ukraine’s critical presidential election got underway Sunday under the wary scrutiny of a world eager for stability in a country rocked by a deadly uprising in the east. While there were no immediate reports of violence, pro-Russia insurgents were trying to block voting by snatching ballot boxes and patrolling polling stations.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Pro-Russian armed militants inspect a damage done by a motor attack at a mental hospital during a fighting between Ukrainian government troops and insurgents, in Semyonovka village outside Slovyansk, Ukraine, Sunday, May 25, 2014. Ukrainians vote Sunday in an early presidential election that could be a crucial step toward resolving the country’s crisis, but separatists in the east are threatening to block the vote. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Pro-Russian armed militants look at pieces of shrapnel at a mental hospital following a motor attack in a fighting between Ukrainian government troops and insurgents, is seen, Semyonovka village outside Slovyansk, Ukraine, Sunday, May 25, 2014. Ukrainians vote Sunday in an early presidential election that could be a crucial step toward resolving the country’s crisis, but separatists in the east are threatening to block the vote. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

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KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s critical presidential election got underway Sunday under the wary scrutiny of a world eager for stability in a country rocked by a deadly uprising in the east. While there were no immediate reports of fighting, pro-Russia insurgents were trying to block voting by snatching ballot boxes and patrolling polling stations.

The vote was taking place three months after the ouster of the country’s pro-Russia leader, who was chased from power by months of protests triggered by his decision to reject a pact with the European Union and forge closer ties with Moscow.

There were no immediate signs of clashes on Sunday after weeks of intense battles. But it also appeared little voting was taking place in the east: The regional administration in Donetsk said that only 426 out of 2,430 polling stations in the region were open Sunday, and none in the city of Donetsk, which has 1 million people.

There was no voting in Luhansk, the center of the neighboring province, but some stations appeared to be open across the region, according to local officials.

Polls have shown the 48-year old billionaire candy-maker Petro Poroshenko far ahead of the other 20 candidates, but short of the absolute majority needed to win in the first round, so a runoff set for June 15 is expected. Poroshenko’s nearest challenger is Yulia Tymoshenko, the charismatic and divisive former prime minister.

Russian President Vladimir Putin promised Friday to “respect the choice of the Ukrainian people” and said he would be ready to work with the winner, in an apparent bid to ease the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War and avoid a new round of Western sanctions.

Many voters appreciate Poroshenko’s pragmatism and his apparent knack for compromise, making him stand out in the nation’s political environment long dominated by intransigent figures. Poroshenko strongly backs closer ties with the EU, but also speaks about the need to normalize ties with Russia.

“He is a very smart man who can work hard compared to others, and he is also a businessman and knows that compromises are necessary even if unpleasant,” said 55-year old Kiev teacher Larisa Kirichenko, who voiced hope that Poroshenko will negotiate a peaceful solution in the east.

Tymoshenko, the 53-year-old blond-braided heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, spent two-and-a half years in prison on abuse of office charges denounced as political by the West. She is still admired by many for her energy and will, but detested by others over her role in the political infighting that has weakened the country in the past.

Tymoshenko said after casting her ballot that Ukraine must join the European Union and NATO.

“Today I voted for a European Ukraine, which can change the lives of every Ukrainian,” she said. “I am convinced that Ukraine can be strong, happy and prosperous if it becomes a member of the European Union.”

“It is time to conduct a referendum on NATO membership in order to return peace to the country … so that nobody could never again encroach on our territory,” she said, adding that her first step if she’s elected would be to apply for the membership in the alliance.

Vladislav Golub, a 31-year old lawyer, said he voted for Tymoshenko because “Ukraine must stop being an oligarchic state

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