At the height of the conflict in 2014, the people of Mariupol, Ukraine, feared their city would be the next to fall to Russian-backed rebel forces.
The threat of annexation by Moscow has subsided for now. But the front line lies just six kilometers (3.7 miles) to the east — and the conflict continues to have a big impact on everyday life in the city.
Moscow’s detention of two dozen Ukrainian sailors seized in a naval clash just offshore in November underlines the continued threat.
Faced with such challenges, how do the people of Mariupol view Sunday’s presidential election? And who holds the key to ending the conflict? Amid the election campaigns, frustration and exhaustion are palpable.
“I like any of the candidates, but not the one who is in power now. We need more authority for us to have peace, for our economy to grow, for us to be prosperous,” Mariupol resident Tatyana told VOA.
Aleksandr Sidorov, a soldier on leave from the front line, believes the next president can do little about the war with Russia. He’s focused on domestic issues.
“The main issue for me is for all the corrupt people to be imprisoned,” he said.
Young mother Alina Arabadzhi plans to vote for comedian-turned-presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky.
“Why Zelensky? Because it is a new face. Because he has no vested interests. He hasn’t been in politics a single day,” she said.
WATCH: Voting on the Front Lines of Ukraine’s War With Russia
The war is having a huge effect on the local economy. Mariupol used to be an export hub for the Donbas region, Ukraine’s former industrial powerhouse. Most of that region is now controlled by Russian-backed separatists and has been all but cut off.
Two giant steel plants still dominate Mariupol’s skyline, bringing prosperity but also choking pollution. The products are shipped around the world from the nearby port. However, since its forceful seizure of Crimea in 2014, Russia controls shipping access to the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait — effectively giving it a stranglehold on a key artery of Mariupol’s economy.
The director of the port, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich, said he is losing over $7.5 million a year in business.
“Starting in April 2018, Russia started to search all the ships which enter the Azov Sea to reach Ukrainian ports. Then after loading, they check them again when they return back to the Black Sea. The waiting time, the route time, has increased, and it’s had a great financial impact on our export clients,” Aleksandrovich told VOA.
Amid the upheaval, there has been progress in some areas. The organization, Halabuda, began as a group of volunteers taking supplies to soldiers on the front line. It has now morphed into an advice group for residents and businesses.
“A question that concerns every single citizen of Ukraine is corruption. Compared to the corruption in law enforcement that we had five years ago, now after the reforms, we nearly eradicated corruption at the level of the traffic police,” said Halabuda founder Dmitry Chichera.
Corruption and conflict: generational challenges with no easy answers. The people of Mariupol are desperate for change and for the war to end. They know that whoever becomes president, the threat from the east is unlikely to end anytime soon.