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Putin Visits Ukraine Again Before Crucial Election

Russian President Vladimir Putin has wrapped up a visit to neighboring Ukraine where he met with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich just over a week before the crucial second round of a presidential election. The Kremlin has made no secret that it favors Mr. Yanukovich in a vote that has become a kind of tug-of-war between Russia and the West.

The official reason for President Putin's second trip to Ukraine in as many weeks was to meet President Leonid Kuchma to discuss transport links between the two countries.

But Mr. Putin also briefly met Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who is running neck-and-neck with opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko in the decisive second round runoff vote for president in just over a week.

The Russian leader wished Mr. Yanukovich well, although he was more guarded in his praise than on his previous visit just before the first round of voting two weeks ago.

Mr. Yushchenko criticized Mr. Putin for that earlier visit, saying it was clear interference in Ukraine's internal affairs. The Russian leader took part in a call-in show on television and appeared with Mr. Yanukovich at a highly-publicized military parade.

Most television channels have given Mr. Yanukovich widespread coverage while ignoring Mr. Yushchenko, who says he wants to move Ukraine closer to the West.

By contrast, Mr. Yanukovich wants to increase links with Russia, and has even backed a proposal to make Russian an official second language.

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

After 10 days of counting, election officials announced that Mr. Yushchenko came out slightly ahead in that round, which was contested by more than a dozen candidates.

The run-off will be held because neither of the two leading contenders reached 50 percent in the first round.

In another move reflecting the political split in the country, both President Kuchma and Mr. Yanukovich chose to meet Mr. Putin and skipped a visit by Poland's Foreign Minister to assess the situation prior to the second round of voting.

The Polish minister came to Ukraine's capital, Kiev, with the watchdog organization known as the Council of Europe to discuss the second round of voting.

He did meet with Mr. Yushchenko as well as top election officials, warning them against a repeat of the irregularities that occurred in the first round.

Ivan Lozowy is a Ukrainian political analyst who says the long delay in announcing first round results is a sign more problems lie ahead in the final round.

"I think the only chance for improvement in terms of the central election commission, which is the single key government body engaged in counting and election results, is mass public pressure," Mr. Lozowy said.

The United States and other Western countries have warned Ukraine that there could be consequences if the election is seen as not being fair.