The United States Monday expressed disappointment over what it said were shortcomings in the Ukrainian presidential election. But the Bush administration is withholding a threatened review of the relationship with Kiev pending a second round of voting later this month.
The State Department says the United States shares the view of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that multiple flaws in the campaign and voting represent a setback for Ukraine, though it says there is still a chance the November 21 runoff election can be free and fair.
There were more than 20 candidates in the race to succeed outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, though as expected it boiled down to a two-man race between incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko.
While the campaign was marred by charges of government favoritism toward Mr. Yanukovych, who drew the most votes, neither man won an outright majority and the two will compete in the run-off in three weeks.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli called the election one of the most important events in Ukraine since its independence in 1991, and said the United States agrees with OSCE observers that the campaign and voting failed to meet international standards in a number of areas.
"We are disappointed in this, and we share the OSCE's assessment that this election, quote constitutes a step backward, unquote, from Ukraine's 2002 elections," he said. "In particular, we would note that the campaign was marred by serious violations, and that there were significant irregularities on election day, although the high participation levels by the electorate and civil society were encouraging."
Mr. Ereli said U.S. officials see the second round of the election as an opportunity for Ukraine to confirm its commitments to democratic principles.
He said the United States urges Ukrainian authorities to allow the people of the country to choose freely, and for the government to adhere scrupulously to internationally-accepted standards for tabulating and registering the results.
In a published commentary last week, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said a free and fair election would deepen Ukraine's ties with the West.
But he said a "bad" election would prompt the United States to re-examine its relationship with Kiev, especially with individuals who engaged in election fraud and manipulation.
Under questioning, Mr. Ereli said the United States was not pressuring Ukraine but merely holding the Kiev government to election standards that it has committed itself to. He any re-assessment of the bilateral relationship would follow the run-off election.