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Ukrainian election teeters between EU and Russia

- - Sunday, October 28, 2012

KIEV — Political allies of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych appeared on track to retaining control over the country's parliament as polls closed Sunday, although opposition parties charged voting irregularities in an election seen as a test for the government's commitment to democracy.

Exit polls showed that the ruling Party of Regions would have little trouble holding on to its majority in the  legislature and the party quickly claimed victory after polls closed Sunday, but it was unclear which party would finish second, making that party the main opposition.

"We believe that this is an undisputable victory of the Party of Regions," Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said.

"Above all, it shows the people's trust to the [policy] course that is being pursued."

Many observers also were watching the election results for Svoboda, a far-right anti-Semitic fringe party with prospects of gaining a few seats in parliament and sparking concerns from Israel.

The stakes for a nonpresidential election in Ukraine could hardly be higher. The country's relationship with the European Union was damaged after the scandal sparked by the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko two years ago on corruption charges widely seen as politically motivated.

If observers deem the election unfair, Ukraine's ties with the EU would be eroded further and the former Soviet republic could look for deeper relations with Russia.

"We want to have stronger ties with the EU, but the EU has to want to have stronger ties with us," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko said in an interview Sunday.

In Kiev, some of the more than 4,000 foreign election observers reported only minor irregularities at voting stations.

Italian observer Alessandro Musolino said, "From what I have seen and from what I have been told by my colleagues, everything appears very regular."

The Yanukovych government went out of its way to grant access to international monitors in an attempt to improve the country's democratic credentials and move beyond the Tymoshenko scandal.

Invisible ink, power outages

However, reports from opposition leaders alleging wrongdoing rolled in, according to news reports from the provinces.

Olha Herasimyuk, a candidate for a pro-Western party headed by boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, reportedly was attacked while trying to gather evidence of a vote-buying scheme. Others reported unusual power outages at some voting places in the north. Election officials in Odessa temporarily halted voting after discovering pens with disappearing ink for marking ballots.

Mr. Klitschko's party, called the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, and Mrs. Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party are reported to be in a close race for second place.

It may be nearly as important whether Svoboda manages to reach the threshold of 5 percent of the vote to guarantee parliamentary representation under the country's new electoral law.

Svoboda, which last week signed an electoral pact with Mrs. Tymoshenko's party, has gained support with its nationalist platform that calls for repealing controversial reforms to the country's pension and tax systems, reducing foreign ties and opposing any effort to make Russian an official language.

Extremist views

The party's rising profile also is prompting concerns in Israel, which fears that Svoboda's extreme views such as its denial of the Holocaust would be legitimized if it gained seats in parliament.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry on Saturday condemned the party as a throwback to "the darkest pages of history" that included World War II.

Alex Miller, one of three members of the Israeli parliament observing the Ukrainian election, said in an interview that Svoboda threatened to undo the warming relations between Ukraine and the Jewish state.

"Everything could be jeopardized by this party," he said, pointing to a pending free-trade deal and a pension agreement for Ukrainian retirees in Israel as potential casualties.

"Recall that in their first election, the Nazis only won two seats in the German legislature. It's never safe to dismiss a group because it is small."

Kiev was decked out for the election with concerts in several city squares and restaurants planning to stay open late, but the mood on the street was subdued.

Oksana Demyan, a 23-year-old university student, said most Ukrainians were put off by the choices they had in the election.

"There are very few candidates who excite the public," said Ms. Demyan, who said she voted for Mrs. Tymoshenko's party. "It's like a choice between scandals, and not a choice between parties."

Viktor Podolsky, the 44-year-old owner of a coffee bar, said he hoped Mr. Yanukovych's power would be curbed after the vote.

"The important thing is to have a serious opposition in order to block the ruling parties from doing too much without problem," he said, although he refused to say which party he supported. "I have my views, but everyone is welcome in my shop regardless of who they support."

Full official results are not expected until Monday or Tuesday, election officials said.