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Feudal lords, election hacking color Ukraine chaos

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A pro-Russian separatist guards a checkpoint in the breakaway Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. (Source: CNN) A pro-Russian separatist guards a checkpoint in the breakaway Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. (Source: CNN)
Ukrainians have seen a change in national government, the loss of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine, and national elections all in the past five months. (Source: WikimediaCommons) Ukrainians have seen a change in national government, the loss of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine, and national elections all in the past five months. (Source: WikimediaCommons)
New Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko has vowed to crush the rebellion in eastern Ukraine. (Source: MGN Online) New Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko has vowed to crush the rebellion in eastern Ukraine. (Source: MGN Online)
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(RNN) – Ukrainians believe the Russians hacked the nation's electronic reporting system and forced the vote totals of the May 25 election to be phoned and faxed in to the nation's capital, said an American observer.

Matthew Schmidt, an assistant professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, was in Kiev, the Ukrain capital, and Dnipropetrovsk during the elections that were overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Ukrainian authorities had announced before the election that the electronic voting system had been hacked, according to Euronews, a TV channel based in France.

The interference was just another turn in a string of bizarre events in Ukraine, a nation wracked by violence and split into three parts, where governors rule like feudal lords and  elections take place under duress.

One billionaire ruler even offered an enormous bounty for the head of a dead opponent.

Schmidt explained how Ukrainian officials concluded that the computerized vote-recording system had been compromised.

"The previous (pro-Russian) administration left back doors," said Schmidt, who added that experts with the new national government worked to eliminate the threat but must not have closed all avenues of vote tampering.

The voting was brisk but there was an undercurrent of fear in Dnipropetrovsk, which is called the "westernmost region in eastern Ukraine," Schmidt said. It is adjacent to Donetsk where so many deadly clashes have occurred between Ukraine national forces and pro-Russian fighters who claim independence from the Kiev government.

Feudal lord runs region

But the new Ukrainian national government has appointed a fearless man to oversee the government in a country that has seen so much turmoil.

The new billionaire governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region of eastern Ukraine has said he will pay $1 million for the head of a certain pro-Russian separatist, who is dead. The bounty by Gov. Igor Kolomoisky is indicative of the type of governance in some areas of Ukraine, said Schmidt, who returned to America on May 29 from monitoring the vote in Ukraine. The Financial Times said the bounty is part of how the industrialist governs.

Kolomoisky, who is the head of a group of banking and aviation industries, maintains control of the Dnipropetrovsk region by spreading his personal wealth. He offers rewards for the capture of  weapons, relies on patronage, and will provide protection for villages in Donetsk that opt to join his region, according to the Financial Times.  The governor also pays the salaries of the national fighting force that is battling pro-Russians in eastern Ukraine, Schmidt said.

Kolomoisky was living in Switzerland and was asked to return to his native Dnipropetrovsk by the acting national government.

"He is well-known among locals," Schmidt said. "Because the government lacks funds, he is the feudal lord of the district. He was asked to fund and arm a battalion that comes and goes from Dnipropetrovsk to fight in Donetsk for Ukraine."

Roadblocks were put up around Dnipropetrovsk, a city of 1 million,  to make sure that pro-Russian separatists from Donetsk would not venture in and try to interrupt the voting, Schmidt said. 

"The turnout was higher than usual," Schmidt said. "Mostly women were in charge of the polls, and they were serious." The voting was legitimate and without incident in areas where national government forces were in control, he said.

Schmidt originally was supposed to be part of monitoring teams working in Donetsk and Luhansk, but the breakaway regions were considered too dangerous for voting.

More dangerous voting ahead

The national voting put another billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, in position to take the reins. He will be sworn in on June 7 and faces a political tightrope as he tries to bring order to eastern Ukraine without drawing the powerful Russian Army into the conflict, said Schmidt, who holds a Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University and an M.A. in Russian Studies from the University of Kansas.

Frontrunner Poroshenko's campaign pitch to voters was simple. He told the people to vote for him the first time to avoid a runoff because going to the polls can be hazardous, Schmidt said. 

Poroshenko has vowed to crush the rebellion in the east.

"He has to bring closure to the violence in eastern Ukraine," Schmidt said. The problem is that the Ukrainian military is not very good and Poroshenko can't withstand the images of high body counts, especially among civilians, which could invite the Russians into the fight, he added.

For the national government, the next step is a familiar one. A vote for parliament is set for the fall, Schmidt said. And a referendum on a new national constitution needs to happen as well, he said.

He predicts that the measure to be voted on will give local officials more power, providing Russian President Vladimir Putin with a way to claim victory in eastern parts of the country. 

"The government will agree to a process of decentralization (that) will dissolve more to a local government away from regional government," Schmidt said.

Putin's overall fear is that Ukraine will become part of the European Union and NATO. But his annexation of Crimea has blocked that from happening.

Before a nation can become part of the EU, all territorial disputes must be solved, which leaves Ukraine on the outside looking in because of the controversy over Crimea, Schmidt said.

Schmidt said despite all that has happened in Ukraine the people's spirits are high.

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