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Ukraine's Presidential Candidates Prepare to Debate

Ukraine's two presidential candidates are preparing for their first and only nationally-televised debate in the capital, Kiev, six days before the second-round run-off.

With less than a week to go before the crucial second-round run-off vote, Ukrainians will get their first real feel for the two men vying to be their next president.

The first channel of Ukraine's state-controlled television, hosts pro-Russia Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich and pro-reform opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in a two-hour nationally-televised live debate.

Before now, neither candidate had agreed to a debate. But with the two virtually tied at 39 percent of the vote after the first round, independent political analyst Stephan Bandera in Kiev says each has a lot to gain from the debate.

Mr. Bandera also says the candidate ultimately viewed as the winner of the debate will likely be determined by the debate format selected.

"Negotiations are still going on," he said. "For example, the Yuschenko camp is maintaining that the candidates be allowed to ask each other questions that are not prepared, while the Yanukovich camp is saying, 'No, we want all the questions ahead of time.' And if that happens then, obviously, [Mr.] Yanukovich will have a chance to prepare answers and memorize them as best he can. However, if the debate takes the format where the candidates are allowed to pose questions to one another with the element of surprise, I think [Mr.] Yuschenko will have the advantage."

Mr. Bandera says it has been decided the debate will cover four themes; social, foreign, internal, and economic policies. He says each candidate will be allowed to make a three-minute opening statement, as well as a five-minute closing statement.

The candidates also have the right to refuse to answer a question they do not wish to discuss.

In a television interview this past weekend, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma praised Prime Minister Yanukovich, his chosen successor, for improving living standards in Ukraine. He also characterized the opposition leader, Mr. Yuschenko, as a populist who he said is making campaign pledges that he can not possibly deliver.

The United States and European Union have strongly urged Ukrainian officials to correct wide-spread irregularities, such as pro-government media bias and problems with voter lists, in order to ensure a free and fair vote in the second-round.

Russia's Itar-Tass news agency quoted the Chairman of Ukraine's Central Election Commission, Sergei Kivalov, as saying the commission is not ready to run the second round of elections, scheduled for November 21.

Mr. Kivalov reportedly cites a multi-million dollar shortage of funds and says that unless the government addresses the problem immediately the elections could be, in his words, under threat. According to Mr. Kivalov, the funds are to pay salaries for electoral officials, as well as to cover the costs of the televised debate.