Ukraine is in political turmoil after hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Kiev and other cities to protest the results of a hotly contested presidential election. Officials named the pro-government candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the winner in the Nov. 21 poll, with 49.4% of the vote, vs. 46.7% for opposition contender Viktor Yushchenko. But election observers claimed widespread voting irregularities. Yushchenko declared himself the rightfully elected President on Nov. 23 after refusing to recognize the official result.
Although opposition supporters pledged to use legal means, two days after the poll senior politicians were warning of civil war. Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma called for talks to resolve the crisis. Yushchenko has strong support in Western and Central Ukraine, while Yanukovych is strong in the Russian-speaking East. At stake is the future political direction of the country of 47 million, which stretches from Russia to the European Union.
If Yushchenko wins the standoff, he has pledged to bring Ukraine closer to Europe and eventually apply for EU and NATO membership. That could strain relations with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who is working to recreate an economic union between Russia, Ukraine, and other ex-Soviet states. Yanukovych was Putin's preferred candidate because the Ukrainian Prime Minister wants tighter links with Russia. But a Yanukovych victory could usher in a sharp decline in relations with the U.S. and Europe if electoral violations are confirmed. The U.S. State Dept. has warned of economic sanctions.
By Jason Bush in Moscow