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Ukrainians Vote in Runoff Round of Presidential Election

Millions of Ukrainians are heading for polling stations to vote in a runoff presidential election between one candidate who seems the clear favorite of the Russian government and another who appears to be favored by Western countries. The winner will succeed long-time President Leonid Kuchma.

Voters are crowding into polling stations all across Ukraine to cast ballots for one of two presidential candidates at the end of a hotly contested election campaign.

One of the candidates, Prime Minster Viktor Yanukovich, heads one of the country's largest business clans and favors closer ties with Russia.

He was effectively endorsed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who made two trips to Ukraine during the campaign.

Challenging Mr. Yanukovich is former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-reform candidate who favors bringing Ukraine closer to the European Union and perhaps even seeking entry into the NATO alliance.

Mr. Yushchenko came out slightly ahead in the first round of voting on October 31, but neither he nor Mr. Yanukovich reached the 50 percent required to avoid a run-off.

The election is considered a crucial test of the former Soviet republic's commitment to democratic reforms, especially after international observers said the first round vote was marred by irregularities.

Supporters of Mr. Yushchenko say he would have won that round if the counting had been free and fair.

The opposition leader has promised that "millions" of people will take to the streets" if they feel Sunday's vote is falsified.

In response, President Leonid Kuchma warned on Saturday there will be no "revolution" in the streets.

This was a reference to events a year ago in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, when crowds of protesters swept President Eduard Shevardnadze from power after a fraudulent election.

Both the United States and European Union have told Ukraine that there will be consequences if Sunday's vote is seen as not being free or fair.

Despite these concerns, analysts say that Ukraine is unique in a region where authoritarian regimes are the norm.

Boris Makarenko of the Center for Political Analysis in Moscow, says this is the only place in the former Soviet Union where real pluralism still exists within the society, and where there's true competition in elections.

Some preliminary results from the voting may be available on Monday, although it took two weeks before the electoral commission announced that Mr. Yushchenko had won by a narrow margin. It is estimated that 37 million people are eligible to vote.