The New York Times
December 27, 2004                                                                                                                                                                                       

Pro-West Leader Heads to Victory in Ukraine

By C. J. CHIVERS
 
 

KIEV, Ukraine, Dec. 27 - Viktor A. Yushchenko, the opposition leader, headed for victory today in a riveting presidential race marked by intrigue, charges of poisoning, fervent street demonstrations and widespread abuses of state power.

With 98.36 percent of the votes from the Sunday election counted, Mr. Yushchenko was leading Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovich by 52.29 percent to 43.92 percent, according to election officials.

A final count is expected to be released later today, the Central Election Commission said.

There were no independent reports of the egregious election violations that had discredited the previous round of voting. Mr. Yushchenko, addressing supporters at this headquarters, predicted an end at last to an extended and bitter election season.

"It has happened," said Mr. Yushchenko, his face still disfigured from dioxin poisoning this fall for which he has blamed his adversaries in the government. "Today we are turning a page of lies, censorship and violence." Ahead, he said, lay a "new epoch of a new great democracy."

Displays of fireworks lighted up Independence Square, where tens of thousands of Mr. Yushchenko's supporters turned out once more, as they had for more than two weeks in late November and early December to protest the government fraud that discredited the last vote. The Orange Revolution, as Mr. Yushchenko's supporters have taken to calling their peaceful resistance, appeared to be nearing its end.

The election was the second head-to-head contest between Mr. Yushchenko and Mr. Yanukovich, who once had been the handpicked successor to departing President Leonid D. Kuchma, but had publicly broken with Mr. Kuchma and cast himself as an embittered outsider.

A first round of voting in October had narrowed a large field to these two finalists, and the second round of voting, on Nov. 21, which gave the victory to Mr. Yanukovich, was overturned by Ukraine's Supreme Court on the grounds of widespread fraud and abuse of resources by the state.

Mr. Yanukovich, speaking shortly after the polls closed at 8 p.m. on Sunday, did not concede the race, although he implicitly acknowledged that his prospects for victory were slight, and he spoke indirectly of life out of power. "If I lose, there will be a harsh opposition," he said. "They will see what opposition means."

Still, he remained defiant, saying many of his supporters had been denied a chance to vote.

His campaign predicted a court challenge.

Turnout was down nearly 3 percent from the last race, but remained high; the election commission's preliminary count said 77.22 percent of the electorate had voted.

Ukraine sits at one of the crossroads between Russia and the West, and the election forced into the open an impassioned dialogue about the course this nation of 48 million should choose.

Mr. Yushchenko has vowed to break the hold of what he describes as a corrupt elite who had enriched themselves during privatization of state resources in a manner reminiscent of what occurred in Russia in the early 1990's. He also pledged to orient Ukraine westward toward Europe, accelerating Ukraine's post-Soviet evolution both by fashioning a more open government and by nurturing relationships with Western nations.

Mr. Yanukovich, who draws his support from Ukraine's industrial belts in the east and south, where much of the population speaks Russian, seeks stronger ties with Russia and a degree of preservation of the political status quo. He was backed by many of the oligarchs Mr. Yushchenko has said he hopes to rein in.

A victory by either man would almost certainly involve compromise on their starkly defined aims. By culture, language, religion, history and economy, Ukraine remains deeply tied to Russia, upon which it depends for much of its energy. But the country is also looking westward for trade and cultural connections, and a chance to flex a growing nationalist sentiment that bristles at the thought of being under Moscow's sway.

With the nation pulled in both directions, it would seem improbable that any candidate would sharply cut ties either way, just as it would seem difficult for Mr. Yushchenko's camp to rout Ukraine's oligarchs, whose wealth and influence on political life here remains formidable.

Mr. Yushchenko appeared to recognize the conflicting influences on the nation last week, when he said his first visit out of Ukraine after his victory would be to Moscow, where President Vladimir V. Putin, who publicly supported Mr. Yanukovich in the last round, has complained about what he describes as state of continuous revolution in former Soviet states.

The race also exposed strains in Russia's relations with the West, with Mr. Putin's eagerness to support Mr. Yanukovich, even after he benefited from fraud, raising questions about the Russian president's judgment. And it opened a small but fiercely fought argument in the West, as some accused the American government, nongovernmental groups and such traditional rivals as the Republican and Democratic parties of conspiring to underwrite and orchestrate the revolution, in part through grants and foreign aid.

As the election commission labored into the early morning to count the votes, Mr. Yushchenko's campaign described a day of voting starkly different from the previous two rounds, saying that it had received reports from all but two eastern regions and that nothing had prevented free voting.

This view was not shared by Mr. Yanukovich's campaign, whose officials complained of aggressive campaigning by poll workers supporting Mr. Yushchenko. The officials said many of Mr. Yanukovich's supporters had been intimidated.

"We have a lot of problems with this election," said Taras Chornovol, the prime minister's campaign manager.

Mr. Chornovol also said the decision on Saturday by Ukraine's Constitutional Court to overturn an amendment to the election law limiting the number of disabled voters who could vote at home had caused confusion and led to inaccurate voter results.

He predicted that Mr. Yanukovich would file formal complaints, which, like the election on Nov. 21, could force Ukraine's judicial branch to consider whether it wanted to examine the conduct of the race.

But there were no independent reports of the sort of widespread violations documented in the previous rounds, when busloads of voters were reported to be roaming the country to vote multiple times, and when observers were blocked from the polling places or ballot counting.

More than 12,000 election observers were registered to monitor the race. The largest group, the Ukrainian Committee of Voters, which deployed 10,000 observers, issued a statement late Sunday in which is said it had not documented the kinds of "massive falsifications" seen in the first two rounds.

Another assessment of the conduct by the two campaigns and the government was expected to be released Monday afternoon in the form of the initial report of the observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The organization's report after the Nov. 21 election provided one of the most cogent and thorough criticisms of the government's abuses, and it added to the momentum of resistance that eventually led to the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the official result.

Much about the day felt different than before, and Kiev assumed a much calmer feel. The election commission, formerly ringed by riot fencing and guarded by police officers with water cannons mounted on armored trucks, appeared almost deserted. The fencing, and almost all of the police, were gone. Moreover, the rally in the square had a more familiar feel. The revolution had even gone retail, with vendors selling orange scarves, coffee cups and Santa hats, as well as CD's with the greatest hits from the demonstrations.

President Kuchma, casting his vote on Sunday, signaled his hope that the political impasse, which had almost paralyzed Ukraine and had at one point flirted with violence or separatism, would soon end.

"Dear God, let this be the final vote," he said, according to reports from news agencies.