Ukraine's industrial heartland is up for grabs

A woman walks past the front entrance of the Metinvest Ilyich Iron and Steel Works on May 22, 2014 in Mariupol, Ukraine.

Ukrainians head to the polls on Sunday. Well, maybe. 

Mark Lowen says that, in chaotic eastern Ukraine, the election may not even happen.

“You do occasionally stumble upon armed groups in the city center,” says Lowen, a BBC correspondent in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. “But if you go out of Donetsk to [the outlying towns] they are totally in the hands of pro-Russia armed militias.  There is a siege-like atmosphere there, and that is where the election will not be held at all.”

Lowen says that losing eastern Ukraine to separatists would be a huge economic blow to the Ukrainian government.

‘This is the industrial heartland of the country," he says, "There is a massive mining, steel, iron industries... it is an extremely important area. If Kiev loses control of this area entirely it loses a massive chunk of its economy.”

The front runner in the presidential election is a candy making billionaire named Petro Poroshenko. He's reached out to the east -- if elected he says his first trip will be to Donetsk. But Lowen says he's still a controversial figure.

"His pro-European stance will go down well in Kiev and western Ukraine," Lowen says, "But less well here in the east, where there are many people who still feel Ukraine should have closer ties to Russia."

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Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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