- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

KIEV — Three exit polls yesterday showed pro-Western opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko ahead by double digits in a replay of an earlier election in which his Moscow-backed opponent prevailed through massive vote fraud.

“This is a victory of the Ukrainian people, of the Ukrainian nation,” Mr. Yushchenko told reporters last night. “We wanted this for hundreds of years, and right now, we have become free.”

As he spoke, fireworks lit up the sky and music blared from loudspeakers on the streets of Kiev, where tens of thousands of pro-Yushchenko demonstrators had camped out in the bitter cold for nearly three weeks.

Without bloodshed, the protesters successfully pressed the nation’s highest court to declare the Nov. 21 vote invalid and set a date for yesterday’s vote.

Exit polls in the earlier election also showed Mr. Yushchenko winning by comparable margins, only to be overwhelmed by millions of extra ballots from pro-government precincts where voter turnout exceeded 100 percent.

“This is the beginning of a new era of Ukrainian democracy,” Mr. Yushchenko said. “Thousands of Ukrainians dreamed of this day.”

Viktor Yanukovych, who appeared to have gone from triumph to defeat in just over a month, pledged to lead a “tough opposition” to Ukraine’s next government.

Final, official vote results were not expected until today, but with ballots from just over 80 percent of precincts counted, Mr. Yushchenko was leading with 55.09 percent to Mr. Yanukovych’s 41.09 percent.

A dejected-looking Mr. Yanukovych, backed by the outgoing Ukrainian president as well as by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, refused to concede defeat in an earlier press conference.

But, he vowed, if “there is a loss, there will be a tough opposition and they will see what an opposition is.”

After casting his ballot, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma appealed to whoever lost to congratulate the winner and put an end to the painfully prolonged election campaign.

“Dear God, let this be the last vote,” Mr. Kuchma said. “I’m sure it will be. … The country can’t continue in this state.”

More than 12,000 foreign observers fanned out across the country, particularly to the south and east where voter fraud had been widespread in the previous balloting.

“This is obviously a hugely important election,” said Chet Atkins, a former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who was an election observer in the eastern Ukrainian Sumy region.

He said many Western observers gave up their Christmas holidays to observe the election because they were taken with “the energy, the power of the Ukrainian people for democracy.”

In contrast to the Nov. 21 balloting, yesterday’s voting appeared to have been held without major violations or falsifications, although minor infractions were registered nationwide.

“We don’t see organized attempts to falsify the election,” Ihor Popov, director of the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, said in a television interview.

The independent monitoring group said about 2.8 million false votes had been cast in the previous round.

Although Mr. Yushchenko has called neighboring Russia a strategic partner, he is expected to push Ukraine closer to the West and international institutions.

Natalie Plotnik of Kiev said she voted for Mr. Yushchenko because she wanted “to live like people in all civilized countries, to have a normal life.”

“I voted for democracy, for freedom, so that my nation is respected in the world and people don’t look at me like a person from a criminal country,” she said. “I want to work for my country, not others, and to live in a stable country.”

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets daily to protest voter fraud after the Nov. 21 election. Demonstrations clogged the capital for nearly three weeks and brought Ukraine to a virtual standstill.

A dour-looking Mr. Yanukovych said that millions of elderly and disabled voters had not been able to vote yesterday.

On Saturday, the Constitutional Court ruled against some amendments passed by parliament earlier this month that would have allowed those with certain disabilities to vote at home.

The court ruled everyone who was unable to reach polling stations because of a disability or ill health should be allowed to vote at home. The decision left the Central Election Commission with less than 24 hours to comply.

At-home voting and absentee ballots were two methods the opposition said were used to falsify the Nov. 21 vote and were severely curtailed by parliament.

Because of complicated appeals procedures, it is not clear when a winner might be declared. Mr. Yushchenko told a press conference last week he did not expect an inauguration until early next year.

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