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Europe

Ukrainian Election: Viktor vs. Viktor

Ukrainians vote Sunday for a new president in a bitterly-fought runoff election that will determine whether this strategic former Soviet republic turns toward Europe or remains under Moscow's shadow.

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Who gets her vote?

Western-leaning opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko is battling for the president's job with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who is backed by Ukraine's outgoing President Leonid Kuchma and its giant neighbour Russia.

Kuchma, stepping down after 10 years of often strong-arm rule over this eastern European country of 48 million people, vowed there would be "no revolution" after the opposition threatened mass protests.

Ukraine's opposition has close ties to the pro-Western government in Georgia, which came to power one year ago after peaceful demonstrations forced out the Soviet-era leadership in the so-called "rose revolution."

Yushchenko vows to protest

Viktor Janukowitsch

Viktor Yanukovich

Yushchenko has vowed to bring his supporters onto the streets if Kuchma's appointed heir, Yanukovich (photo), is declared the winner fraudulently in Sunday's election, warning of large-scale vote-rigging.

A police officer was reported killed at a polling station in central Ukraine early in the day, underscoring the tense atmosphere surrounding the knife-edge poll.

In cold but sunny weather, voting took place under tight security at 33,000 polling stations across the country, with exit polls due to be published right after the close of voting at 8 p.m. local time, and official results expected early Monday.

An armed detachment of police equipped with armoured personnel carriers guarded the offices of the central electoral commission in Kiev, which was sealed off with temporary metal barriers.

Yushchenko, accompanied by his five children and American wife, all sporting the opposition's trademark orange, was optimistic as he voted in Kiev.

Wahlen in der Ukraine Viktor Juschtschenko

Viktor Yushchenko

"There will be fraud, but the scenario of victory by the government through fraud is utopian, it won't happen. We have a new electorate, a new country," he said as hundreds of people wearing orange ribbons swarmed around shouting "Yushchenko!"

Russia-US rivalry

The election has sparked intense rivalry between Washington and Moscow, as both seek to ensure their man wins the presidency in a country that the West sees as a buffer with an increasingly authoritarian Russia.

US President George W. Bush has served notice to Kuchma (photo, right) that the United States will review its relations with Ukraine if the presidential vote is not fair.

Der russische Präsident Vladimir Putin trifft sich mit seinem ukrainischen Amtskollegen Kuchma

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) talks to his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma

The first round on October 31 was slammed as a "step backward" for democracy by international observers who said state media favoured the official candidate.

Russia, which under President Vladimir Putin has worked to restore Moscow's influence in much of the former Soviet Union, meanwhile is determined to keep its fellow-Slav neighbour in friendly hands.

A polarized country

Tension has risen in this country, deeply polarized by the clash between the rival visions of Ukraine's future. The two opponents both garnered around 40 percent of the vote in the first round.

Yushchenko, 50, a former reformist prime minister, is hugely popular in the nationalist Ukrainian-speaking west, while the 54-year-old Yanukovich draws his support from the heavily industrialized Russian-speaking east.

Yanukovich, who has promised to make Russian a second official language and allow dual citizenship, supports the formation of an economic union with Russia and two other major ex-Soviet states.

Wahlen in der Ukraine Viktor Juschtschenko Anhänger

Students from throughout Ukraine rallied in support of Viktor Yushchenko in October

Yushchenko says he sees Ukraine's future in Europe and has set the goal of starting membership talks for the European Union and possibly even the Brussels-based NATO military alliance within three to five years.

Some 37 million people are eligible to cast ballots in the runoff election, which is being observed by nearly 5,000 international monitors. The turnout was 20 percent by 11 a.m., slightly less than at the same hour in the first round, in which 75 percent of voters participated, but electoral officials predicted a surge in voting later in the day.

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