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Ukraine on Edge With Crucial Presidential Runoff Vote Set for Sunday


Ukraine is preparing for a pivotal runoff vote on Sunday that could determine whether the former Soviet republic moves closer politically to the West or remains closely tied to Russia. There are also many concerns about possible fraud or street protests depending on the outcome.

The runoff pits Western-leaning opposition leader Viktor Yuschenko against current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who advocates maintaining close links with Russia.

Mr. Yuschenko narrowly won the first round vote on October 31, but it was not enough to avoid a runoff with Mr. Yanukovich.

Mr. Yuschenko is a reformist former prime minister who has pledged to move Ukraine closer to the European Union and may even seek entry into the NATO military alliance.

In contrast, Mr. Yanukovich is popular in the largely Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, and has promised to make Russian an official second language in Ukraine.

He received all but open backing from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who made two visits to Ukraine during the bitterly fought election campaign.

The opposition has accused the election commission of falsifying the results of the first round, and has warned there will be large street protests if the vote count on Sunday is also seen as fraudulent.

Foreign election observers said the first round was marred by irregularities, and both the United States and European Union have warned Ukraine there "will be consequences" if the runoff is not free and fair.

For his part Prime Minister Yanukovich has predicted that he will be victorious, and says the authorities will take action against protesters who might break the law.

He has warned there will be no repeat of the "Rose revolution" in the former Soviet republic of Georgia a year ago when President Eduard Shevardnadze was swept from power after crowds stormed parliament.

Boris Makaraenko works with the Center for Political Analysis in Moscow.

Mr. Makarnenko says he doubts there will be a revolution in Ukraine if Mr. Yanukovich wins. But he does think that opposition supporters will take to the streets, their position strengthened by Mr. Yuschenko's first-round victory.

The opposition leader has also received the backing of Socialist Party leader Olexander Moroz, who won six percent in the first round.

Most analysts agree that Mr. Yuschenko is likely to win if the election is conducted fairly, in part because millions of Ukrainians are disillusioned with current President Leonid Kuchma, who strongly backs Mr. Yanukovich.

Barred from seeking a third term, Mr. Kuchma's ten-year rule has been marred by allegations of human rights abuses and corruption.

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