Yushchenko supporters wary ahead of Ukraine's election

Talk of prime minister's backers going to capital if opposition wins

December 26, 2004|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

KIEV, Ukraine - Huddling around space heaters inside their tents near Independence Square, the "Orange Revolution" faithful are nervous.

Their candidate, opposition leader Viktor A. Yushchenko, is the clear favorite in today's repeat presidential runoff. Election law changes have been passed to prevent the kind of fraud that tainted the Nov. 21 runoff, won by Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych. More than 12,000 international election observers are expected to scrutinize the voting.

But this is Ukraine, where a presidential candidate was poisoned, where thugs appeared at polling stations to steal ballot boxes. There's talk of Yanukovych backers arming themselves and heading to Kiev, the capital, if Yushchenko wins. In a debate with Yushchenko last week, Yanukovych ominously warned that his loyalists in the east simply would not accept a Yushchenko presidency.

"They will come here from the east disguised as Yushchenko supporters, but their main reason to come here will be to organize mass riots," said Stanislav Opalinsky, 40, a Kiev driver. "I'm confident that will happen."

Opalinsky and his brethren in the pro-Yushchenko tent camp hope they're wrong, but they remain wary as Ukraine's biggest political crisis in 13 years of independence reaches a climax today. Rigged elections have been the rule, not the exception, in Ukraine. Even if Yushchenko wins, he faces the task of unifying a country sharply divided between Russian-speaking, pro-Kremlin Ukrainians in the east and south, and Ukraine's pro-U.S., reform-minded citizenry in the west.

"The east part of Ukraine will never acknowledge Yushchenko as their true president," said 25-year-old factory worker Sergei Pavlov, wearing a raincoat festooned with blue and white Yanukovych stickers. "If Yushchenko is elected, so many people will be angry. We will have to take to the streets. He cannot become our president."

New ruling

Election-related disputes continued yesterday as Ukraine's Constitutional Court ruled that recent legislation restricting the voting rights of homebound people - a reform sought by Yushchenko's supporters - was unconstitutional, Ukrainian news agencies reported. However, the head of Ukraine's election commission said the revote will be held as scheduled.

Today's vote was ordered by Ukraine's Supreme Court, which ruled Dec. 3 that widespread election fraud committed by Ukrainian authorities marred the runoff narrowly won by Yanukovych. The ruling was preceded by 12 days of protests in which hundreds of thousands of Yushchenko supporters filled the streets of Kiev.

Dubbed the Orange Revolution after Yushchenko's campaign color, the uprising spread tension throughout Kiev and the rest of Ukraine but never devolved into violence. Demonstrators formed human cordons around key government buildings - including Yanukovych's Cabinet offices - and effectively brought the government to a standstill.

Thousands jammed into the capital's downtown plaza, Independence Square, to demonstrate support for Yushchenko. Many never went home, choosing to stay at a large tent camp that sprang up along the tree-lined thoroughfare leading to the plaza.

Momentum

Yushchenko appears to have momentum on his side. According to a poll conducted Dec. 14-19 by Kiev's Razumkov Center, 53 percent of registered voters surveyed said they would vote for Yushchenko, compared with 41 percent for Yanukovych.

Analysts believe Yanukovych recognizes the odds and is using the election to position himself as the country's primary opposition leader. He even sounded conciliatory during last week's televised debate, apologizing to Ukrainians "that there were some improprieties in this election campaign. I want us to have no bad will after this election."

The 54-year-old prime minister has been hit with a long list of setbacks since his disputed victory Nov. 21. Most of his top campaign aides have abandoned him. Armed with the support of the street demonstrators, Yushchenko persuaded parliament to fire Yanukovych and his Cabinet on Dec. 1, though outgoing President Leonid D. Kuchma never signed off on the dismissal.

After the ruling from Ukraine's Supreme Court, Yanukovych distanced himself from Kuchma, who had appointed Yanukovych prime minister and tapped him to be president. Even Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who this fall put the full weight of the Kremlin behind Yanukovych's campaign, appeared to back away from the candidate.

At a news conference last week in Germany, Putin said he would be willing to work with a Yushchenko presidency. Recalling Yushchenko's tenure as Ukraine's prime minister under Kuchma from 1999 to 2001, Putin said, "I know Mr. Yushchenko. ... I see no problems here."

`Matters for Russia'

The Russian leader's remarks were a clear indication that the Kremlin foresees a Yushchenko victory, according to analysts - who point out that Russia maintains strong economic ties with the former Soviet republic and cannot afford to alienate Yushchenko further.

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