November 23rd, 2004  

Topic: Voting

Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko has pledged a campaign of mass street protests to overturn presidential election results he, and Western countries, say were rigged by a Moscow-backed government.

But Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, the winner according to preliminary official results, assumed the role of president-in-waiting in an address to the nation on Monday. Authorities said any lawlessness would be quickly suppressed.

"We won. Full stop," Yushchenko said on a day that saw some 100,000 people protesting in central Kiev.

As night-time temperatures sank below zero, the protest thinned out to only a few thousand in Independence Square.

The West spoke of blatant irregularities. Nationalist western regions rejected official returns and said they would recognise only the authority of Yushchenko.

But on the first anniversary of Georgia's mass "rose revolution" which brought down veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze and then elected a pro-Western leader, it was uncertain if Ukraine's liberals could engineer similar changes.

A hard core of committed activists spent the night in a tent camp on Khreshchatyk, Kiev's elegant main street. Activists set up symbolic cordons at both ends of the street after Yushchenko said security forces might try to dismantle the camp at night.

"We must defend every chestnut tree, every tent. We must show the authorities we are here for a long time," Yushchenko told the crowd earlier. "There must be more and more of us here every hour."

He said he had lost more than three million votes to fraud, mainly multiple voting through abuse of absentee ballots.

Yushchenko said protesters from throughout Ukraine would converge on Independence Square. Several busloads were setting out from Lviv, the cradle of Ukrainian nationalism in the west.

The election presented Ukrainians with a stark choice. The premier sees closer ties with Russia as the key to prosperity, while his rival calls for gradual integration with the West.

It underlined the divide between the nationalist west and the industrial Russian-speaking east that, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, backed Yanukovich.


Results were still incomplete, but with more than 99 percent of votes counted in official returns, Yanukovich's lead of more than three percent made it clear he could not be caught.

The prime minister appeared on television, flanked by a blue and yellow national flag, to thank voters for their support and then to warn he had no intention of working with "individual politicians who call people to the barricades".

Western countries weighed in heavily against cheating.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said Washington would review its relationship with Ukraine and take punitive steps if the government failed to investigate the allegations.

The European Union said Ukrainian envoys in member states were being summoned to hear expressions of concern.

In contrast, Putin, who visited Ukraine twice during the campaign to offer support to the prime minister, congratulated him by telephone.

Western Ukraine, Yushchenko's stronghold, voiced its disapproval of events.

Four local councils in the west, long deeply suspicious of the Russian-speaking east, voted to recognise Yushchenko as the legally elected head of state. Authorities in the capital asked parliament not to recognise the count.

One of Yushchenko's demands was for parliament to debate the crisis, though it was uncertain a session would take place.

He also called for results in two regions in eastern Ukraine, Yanukovich's home area, to be overturned as the turnout exceeded the number on voters on lists.