International monitors Monday called Ukraine's weekend local elections "well organised" and "democratic" but urged its pro-Western leadership to do more against political meddling by oligarchs in the war-scarred state.
President Petro Poroshenko's fragile ruling coalition faced a test of its unpopular anti-austerity measures and stuttering anti-corruption drive in mayoral and local legislature races held Sunday in areas administered by Kiev.
Poroshenko hailed early results showing no single party doing well enough to upset his government as a victory over what he called Russia's attempt to hold sway over its ex-Soviet neighbour.
The OSCE gave the polls a generally clean bill of health but said there was also room for improvement.
"The elections were competitive, well organised overall and the campaign generally showed respect for the democratic process," the observer mission of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said in a report.
"Nevertheless, the complexity of the legal framework, the dominance of powerful economic groups over the electoral process, and the fact that virtually all campaign coverage in the media was paid for, underscore the need for continued reform."
It also condemned local authorities for barring some parties and candidates on technicalities that appeared to be "politically motivated".
"In a number of instances observed... the decisions by territorial election commissions with respect to the registration of certain candidates and party lists appeared politically motivated and designed to exclude certain political forces from participating in the elections."
The vote was marred most overtly by the failure of polls to open in Mariupol -- a major port city of 500,000 that sits near the line separating government-held areas from areas under the control of pro-Russian rebels and serves as a land bridge to the Russian-annexed Crimea peninsula.
The Western report did not directly address Mariupol but noted some cases of improperly printed ballots and of its monitors being denied access to polling stations that were reported shut.
"Overall, opening procedures were negatively assessed in seven percent of precincts," it said.
'Crossing a rubicon'
Pro-Russian militia-run parts of the eastern Lugansk and Donetsk regions have been waging an 18-month war against government forces and are planning their own elections for early next year.
The Lugansk rebels displayed yet more defiance Monday by announcing the expulsion of two OSCE monitors who allegedly breached the terms of a shacky truce and political reconciliation agreement agreed by the two sides in February.
"It happened last week. We asked two OSCE monitors to leave," a senior official in the self-proclaimed Lugansk People's Republic told AFP on condition of anonymity.
But the monitoring mission's deputy chief Alexander Hug said in an emailed statement that "no monitors have been removed from (the) Lugansk region."
The expulsions -- if confirmed -- would signal an erosion of Moscow's control over at least some of the separatist units.
Russian President Vladimir Putin backs an OSCE presence in the region and has urged the Cold War-era security body to arrange direct talks between Poroshenko and the two separatist chiefs -- something the Ukrainian leader refuses to do.
Moscow denies orchestrating the conflict in Ukraine's east in revenge for the February 2014 ouster of a Russian-backed president who had just picked closer ties to the Kremlin over those with the European Union.
Poroshenko sees the war as a bid by Putin to bankrupt Ukraine through immense war spending and then force it to join a Moscow-led bloc of nations that could rival NATO's military might.
The president's Solidarity party appeared to do fairly well in the central and more nationalist western parts of the country.
But exit polls showed them being outperformed by either populist or pro-Moscow groups in regions closer to the conflict zone.
Poroshenko said the partial results left Moscow's attempts "to create a pro-Russian fifth column in Ukraine in shambles."
A "fifth column" refers to enemies of the state who try to undermine the ruling order from within.
"With these elections, the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian society has crossed a rubicon that rules out our return to the past," Poroshenko said.