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US Says Ukraine Can Still Salvage a Free and Fair Election

The United States says Friday Ukraine still has an opportunity to conduct a free and fair presidential election Sunday, despite a campaign marred by charges of pro-government bias. A top State Department official said a bad election will prompt a reexamination of U.S. relations with Kiev.

The United States has repeatedly expressed concern about what officials say have been shortcomings in the Ukrainian presidential campaign.

But in advance of Sunday's election, the State Department says there is still time for authorities in Kiev to put an end to violations that plagued the campaign and conduct an election and voting-counting process that meet international standards.

There were originally more than 20 contenders in the race to succeed outgoing President Leonid Kuchma. But the race has boiled down to a contest between incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, a protégé of Mr. Kuchma, and former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko of the center-right opposition party Our Ukraine.

The campaign has been marred by charges of bias in favor of Mr. Yanukovych by government-controlled media outlets, the misuse of government funds, and cases of intimidation of opposition candidates.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said it is deeply disappointing that the campaign has fallen short of international democratic standards.

He acknowledged that the flawed campaign could distort the election outcome but said it is not too late for Ukrainian authorities to put an end to violations and have a free election:

"It's the conduct of the day itself, too," said Richard Boucher. "Let the journalists report freely on what goes on at the polling places. Make sure the tabulating and the registering of the results is done without any interference or fraud or manipulation. Make it a transparent and open process on election day."

Mr. Boucher said he was heartened to hear that a number of journalists in the government media had condemned official censorship and pledged to report the election honestly.

He also said the United States had raised with Moscow on frequent occasions reports of Russian meddling in the Ukrainian election, but gave no details.

In a commentary Friday in the London-based Financial Times newspaper, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage cited signs of trouble in the Ukrainian election process.

He expressed hope Ukraine will not follow the lead of neighboring Belarus, whose elections two weeks ago, he said, were marred by fraud, intimidation and abuse.

Mr. Armitage, who visited Kiev earlier this year, said he carried a message that a free and fair election will deepen Ukraine's relationship with the West.

But he said a bad election will, as he put it, force us to reexamine our relationship, especially with individuals who engage in election fraud and manipulation.

The deputy secretary said the outgoing president, Mr. Kuchma, has a chance to capture for his country the full promise of free elections, and show the world how to serve out his term and transfer power with dignity through a peaceful, proper electoral process.