A tense standoff has gripped Ukraine after its pro-Russia prime minister won the presidential election and the opposition mounted massive protests to contest results of a vote that Washington and Europe said was rigged.
Thousands of protestors suppoort the opposition
As tens of thousands of opposition supporters massed in Kiev, the capital's city council refused to recognize the official results and urged parliament to follow suit. Two cities in the opposition-dominated west, Lviv and Ivano-Frankivks, also refused to recognize the results, sparking fears that Sunday's election could further polarize the deeply divided country.
With 99.38 percent of polling stations reporting, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich had secured 49.42 percent of the vote compared to 46.7 for his Western-leaning rival, Viktor Yushchenko, the central electoral commission said. Yushchenko, however, has refused to concede.
"We are launching an organized movement of civil resistance. The campaign is only just beginning. Don't leave Independence Square until victory," he told a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters massed in a central square in Kiev. Yushchenko, who exit polls showed had comfortably led the vote, denounced a "total falsification" of the runoff results.
Yanukovich responded with an appearance on state television, calling on the demonstrators to go home while offering an olive branch to the opposition, saying that he would take the opposition's views into account during his reign.
"I understand and respect your choice and your right to your own political position," Yanukovich said. "Your view of Ukraine's future will definitely be taken into account by the new leadership of Ukraine."
Russia backs Yanukovich
Ukraine's Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich
Russian President Vladimir Putin, on a state visit to Brazil, meanwhile called Yanukovich to congratulate him on his "decisive" victory, the Kremlin said. But Western observers slammed the vote, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe saying the election did not "meet a considerable number of OSCE commitments and Council of Europe and other European standards for democratic elections."
"It is now apparent that a concerted and forceful program of election-day fraud and abuse was enacted with either the leadership or cooperation of governmental authorities," said Senator Richard Lugar, the senior US observer.
US President George W. Bush had warned outgoing President Leonid Kuchma Kuchma that Washington would review its relations with Ukraine if the presidential vote was not fair. The election sparked intense rivalry between Washington and Moscow, with the West seeing Ukraine as a buffer with an increasingly authoritarian Russia.
United States mulls sanctions
The United States said Monday that Ukraine's weekend presidential run-off was marred by "very disturbing patterns of abuse" and threatened Kiev with sanctions unless the deficiencies are resolved in the post-election period.
"The United States is deeply concerned over the elections in Ukraine," deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said. "There are reports of widespread abuse and fraud in the second round of Ukraine's presidential elections.
"We call on the Ukrainian authorities to curb additional abuse and fraud, to uphold its international commitments to democracy and human rights and to act to ensure an outcome that reflects the will of the Ukrainian people," he told reporters.
Ereli said the charges of irregularities needed to be thoroughly investigated and cleared up before the international community so there could be confidence that the results of the elections reflect the will of the Ukrainian people.
He also said Washington shared assessments from international observers that Sunday's poll failed to meet democratic standards and made clear that the United States was prepared to make good on longstanding threats to review relations with Ukraine if the flaws were not corrected.
EU also worried
Europe also expressed its concern, with Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, calling on Ukrainian authorities to "review" the second round poll result.
"We are very concerned about the news we have had about the outcome," said Bot in Brussels.
"All EU member states are going to invite the Ukrainian ambassadors to convey our feelings that in our view the second round (of elections) does not comply with international standards," Bot said of the EU's new eastern neighbor.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said "we used to have constructive ties with Ukraine, not just the EU, but also NATO. But if the situation continues to develop negatively, we will have to reconsider our relationship."
Gernot Erler, the parliamentary foreign affairs spokesman for Germany's Social Democrats, told DW-RADIO that it appeared there was voter participation of over 100 percent in some areas. However, he also admitted the EU's ability to influence events in Ukraine was limited.
"Europe can still make extremely clear its position on the election and the counting of votes," Erler said.
A supporter of opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko waves a banner at a massive gathering in downtown Kiev.
The opposition, buoyed by exit polls released late Sunday night, quickly went on the offensive against any voting fraud by mobilizing a wave of popular protest. It urged thousands of its supporters to keep up a vigil in Kiev's main square, where tens of thousands of people -- nearly all sporting the opposition's orange color -- had converged by Monday night.
The central square was jam-packed with people in the chilly temperatures as the crowds danced around to rock-performing bands. The disputed results heightened fears of a violent standoff between the opposition and the government of this strategic ex-Soviet state.
The vote was seen as one of the most important in Eastern Europe since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and will determine whether this nation of nearly 50 million turns toward Europe or remains under Moscow's shadow.