- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko is banking on a strong showing in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions in the presidential election on Sunday, hoping to avoid bitter national divisions and to silence separatist talk in the pro-governmenteast and south.

Judging from the number of people displaying his party’s orange flags and neck scarves at a rally in this city 30 miles from the Russian frontier, he is well on his way to achieving that goal.

The latest polls in the Kharkiv region suggest a dead heat between Mr. Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who ran far ahead of the challenger in a Nov. 21 election that will be held again because of evidence of massive fraud.

Other eastern and southern regions also are up for grabs.

Although Mr. Yanukovych likely will sweep the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, he no longer can expect to win outright in several southern provinces, including Dnipropetrovsk, Sumy and Odessa. Mr. Yushchenko has said he expects to win as many as 19 of Ukraine’s 27 administrative regions.

The Yushchenko campaign is worried that even if its candidate prevails Sunday, deep bitterness will remain in the eastern regions where Mr. Yanukovych is most popular.

“We are for fairness, we voted for Yanukovych consciously,” said Natasha, a 40-year-old businesswoman, who initially refused to speak to a reporter.

Like many Yanukovych supporters, she said the Supreme Court decision to invalidate the earlier election had made her feel like a second-class citizen.

Yanukovych backers in Donetsk — the prime minister’s home region — went so far as to call for a referendum on autonomy if Mr. Yushchenko wins. That plan has been dropped, but there has been talk of a march on Kiev by Yanukovych supporters if their candidate is defeated.

Orange, Mr. Yushchenko’s campaign color, has given the popular uprising the name the Orange Revolution, but has been evident in the eastern provinces only lately, residents said.

Andriy, a 19-year-old student who didn’t want to give his last name, voted for Mr. Yanukovych in November but now sports a large orange neck scarf.

“I want a new government,” he said, walking briskly toward his political allies in the park. “I want to walk freely on the street. I support Yushchenko as a person who can make a new life in Ukraine.”

Andriy said he changed his mind about Mr. Yushchenko after several state-controlled television stations said they no longer would let the government tell them what to say.

As a result, Kharkiv residents for the first time began seeing television images of the mass demonstrations against voter fraud that clogged Kiev’s city center for nearly three weeks.

“The wall was broken on November 22 and November 23,” said 18-year-old Nastiya Rusabrova, who voted for Mr. Yanukovych twice but now plans to vote for Mr. Yushchenko.

“Before Kharkiv was apolitical. People thought, ‘Who cares? Yanukovych will win.’ When people saw how elections were falsified” they became active, she said.

Most of Mr. Yushchenko’s supporters said the demonstrations marked a new chapter in Ukraine’s history.

When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Ukrainians were handed independence but didn’t necessarily fight for it, said Artem Zbukarev, a 21-year-old medical student.

“Now we are seeing the birth of a Ukrainian nation,” he said. “Russia always was our neighbor, but Europe is a neighbor I wish for my country.”

Russia is thought to have pumped as much as $300 million into Mr. Yanukovych’s campaign, although President Vladimir Putin has publicly scaled back his support for the prime minister since the Supreme Court ruling.

Nevertheless, Mr. Yushchenko has started to send signals that he does not hold a grudge against the Kremlin and wants to build good working relations with Moscow.

“One needs not lose sight that good bilateral relations between Kiev and Moscow is a key security imperative for Europe,” said Myron Wasylyk, an American adviser hired by the Yushchenko campaign.

“Russia remains Ukraine’s northern neighbor, and Yushchenko will be keen on moving quickly to put behind election politicking and focus on relations with the Kremlin.”

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