Yushchenko declares victory in Ukraine

Early poll returns have opposition leader ahead with 56 percent of vote

December 27, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIEV, Ukraine - Elated by the early returns but wary of last-minute subterfuge, tens of thousands of supporters of presidential candidate Viktor A. Yushchenko gathered in Independence Square last night to sing, dance and wait for word of their candidate's fate.

The official results weren't expected until today. But Yushchenko declared victory early this morning, telling supporters, "Today, Ukraine is beginning a new political life."

With ballots from just over 87 percent of precincts counted, Yushchenko was leading this morning with 54 percent compared with Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych's 42 percent. Yushchenko did not appear to be making inroads in his opponent's territory so much as solidifying his dominance in places that had already supported him.

Yushchenko favors integration into Europe and NATO. His rival, Yanukovych, pledged closer ties to Moscow.

All the exit polls released last night - including those conducted by Russian agencies - showed Yushchenko leading Yanukovych, by an average of 18 percentage points. During the Nov. 21 vote, Ukrainian and western polls predicted Yushchenko would win, while Russian surveys gave Yanukovych the lead.

Yanukovych was declared the winner of last month's contest, but the victory was canceled by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the vote was invalidated by systematic voter fraud.

The marathon election campaign was also marked by the poisoning of Yushchenko with dioxin in September, and 17 days of mass protests in Kiev after the flawed vote in which tens of thousands of demonstrators blockaded government buildings.

The nonviolent uprising brought accusations last week from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin that Western governments are fomenting revolutions across the former Soviet Union.

In the sprawling tent camp on Kreshchatik Street, which protesters erected the day after last month's disputed vote, no one was talking about leaving.

"We're absolutely sure there is a 100 percent victory, but we're staying here," said Ivan Husak, 32, a construction worker from Lviv. Oleg Piven, 41, a retired major in the Ukrainian military and former helicopter pilot, said the current government couldn't be trusted to recognize a Yushchenko victory.

"Public support is necessary until the courts recognize the victory," Piven said.

Rock singers entertained the crowd through the night, as thousands waited for the final results.

More than 12,000 foreign observers were among those monitoring the vote at Ukraine's more than 32,000 polling places. These monitors are expected to start making their formal reports today.

If he wins, Yushchenko - a dapper economist and former central bank chief - plans to build trade with Europe. But no Ukrainian president can afford to cut ties with Russia, which ships billions of dollars' worth of gas and oil to European markets through Ukraine and has major investments in Ukraine's heavy industries.

Sign of defeat

Sounding as if he were preparing for defeat, Yanukovych said last night he was ready to become the leader of the opposition in parliament. The former governor of the Donbass region, in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, told reporters he would teach Yushchenko "what opposition means."

Yanukovych alleged human rights violations, because of anti-fraud reforms adopted Dec. 8 restricting absentee ballots and voting at home by the elderly and disabled.

The home voting by invalids was repealed Saturday by the Ukrainian Constitutional Court, but local election officials apparently struggled to carry out the court ruling.

Yanukovych pointed out that one older woman had died at a polling place. He blamed her death on the restrictions.

"Let this be on the consciences of those who organized this," he said.

About 10 a.m., 25 jump-suited members of the militant pro-Yushchenko group Pora, or "It's Time," lined up outside the entrance to the Central Electoral Commission here.

The unofficial guards did not try to stop anyone from entering the fenced compound, guarded on the inside by police. But their presence created an air of menace.

Last night, the Central Electoral Commission reported that it had received complaints from Yanukovych about election law violations. But the commission said it had no evidence of systematic vote-rigging.

The state-funded Ukrainian Institute of Social Research and Social Monitoring Center, gave Yushchenko a 58 percent-34 percent lead, with a margin of error of 2 percentage points. The Moscow-based Interfax wire service poll showed Yushchenko winning, 53-41.

According to these polls, Ukrainian speakers in western Ukraine remained solidly behind Yushchenko, while Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine again overwhelmingly support Yanukovych.

Analysts said the key to yesterday's vote lay in central and southern Ukraine - including the Black Sea port of Odessa - with their mix of Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking residents. These regions appear to have shifted significantly toward Yushchenko after the Nov. 21 vote.

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