Yushchenko claims victory in Ukraine election

 Kiev and Donetsk Tens of thousands of Ukrainians once again sang, danced and waved a sea of orange flags in Kiev's Independence Square last night as they celebrated the close of a two-month struggle to choose a new president, and the victory of a man trusted to lead them closer to Europe.

Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko was leading by as much as 20 percentage points in some independent exit polls the kind of commanding lead considered necessary for him to assume the presidency after two previous elections in as many months.

"Dear friends, it has happened," Mr. Yushchenko told reporters late Sunday night before addressing crowds of supporters on the square. "Today, in Ukraine, a new political year has begun. This is the beginning of a new epoch, the beginning of a new great democracy."

Final results are not expected until later this week, but preliminary results, based on about 74 per cent of the votes showed Mr. Yushchenko at 55 per cent and his opponent, outgoing Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, at 40 per cent. A country-wide exit poll taken by Kiev's respected Razumkov Centre showed the spread at 56 and 41 per cent, respectively.

"We think this is going to be the end. . . . The whole nation is fed up with oligarchs and with corruption," said 19-year-old Kiev student Kirill Sheichenko.

With more than 12,000 international observers watching over the country's 33,000 polls, initial reports of fraud declined dramatically from last month's second-round presidential vote, which was annulled for massive electoral violations. Observers for Mr. Yushchenko reported early attempts to register extra shut-in voters, while Mr. Yanukovich's supporters compiled long lists of complaints in anticipation of another court challenge.

But Mr. Yushchenko's strongest ally, parliamentarian Yulia Tymoshenko, declared falsification attempts outside of the Yanukovich strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk to be minor, as did the central election commission, which said there was no doubt about the vote's validity.

"There were some irregularities that the CEC is analyzing. . . . I would not hold it against either headquarters. They also went through a difficult election campaign; they have this right," commission chairman Yaroslav Davydovych told state television.

Most observers, including the 400-member Canada Corps team led by former prime minister John Turner and the 400-member Ukrainian Canadian Congress delegation, planned to release their findings Monday.

In Kiev, voting was largely quiet and orderly, with most voters hoping this would be the deciding round. Some acknowledged that the campaign had been an ordeal.

"Yes, of course. But we want to live in a normal European country," said Serhiy Kozachenko, 63, a professor of economics who cast his vote for Mr. Yushchenko a few blocks from Mr. Yanukovich's election headquarters.

The first matter for the new president will be how to hold the divided country together. While Kiev and the west appeared solidly behind Mr. Yushchenko and early results showed him gaining support in the south, Donetsk and Luhansk remained strongholds for Mr. Yanukovich, who has promised to make Russian a second official language and seek stronger ties with Moscow.

The mood in Donetsk, Mr. Yanukovich's home city, was bitter even before the polls closed, as voters recognized that Mr. Yushchenko was heading for a likely victory. Many complained that the Nov. 21 vote had been stolen by street hooligans in Kiev, and some again raised the threat of seeking autonomy from Kiev.

"This is a circus," said Olha Lazareyevicha, a 34-year-old mother of one, after marking Mr. Yanukovich's name on a ballot paper at a polling station in central Donetsk for the third time in eight weeks. "What if [Yushchenko] doesn't win this time? Will there be a fourth round or a fifth round? A 10th? This one person wants to have power in his hands and will do anything to get it."

At Mr. Yanukovich's headquarters, the mood was funereal. Staffers who had held a premature victory bash in November sat at empty desks yesterday, staring at telephones that didn't ring. Later, their candidate delivered a speech in Kiev in which his subdued manner belied his public unwillingness to concede defeat.

"I am absolutely sure that we will win," he said. "If I lose, there will be a tough opposition. They will see what an opposition means."

His campaign team, however, was drawing up lists of hundreds of alleged electoral violations, most of them in the west of the country, including Yushchenko campaign materials found in and near polling stations and a sudden illness experienced by two observers in Lviv after drinking what they called suspicious tea.

Campaign workers also complained loudly of a pro-Yushchenko bias in the news media, which until a recent mini-revolt by journalists had fawned over the Prime Minister.

"Now it is the opposite of before Yanukovich represents the opposition and Yushchenko is the pro-government candidate," said Vladislav Lukyanov, deputy director of the Prime Minister's local campaign effort.As a sense of inevitability set in, many in the coal-producing area said they would support any move to seek more autonomy from Kiev. Many said that the resource-rich Donbass region, centred around Donetsk, would need to seek some sort of autonomy from the centre so that it could better protect its economic and cultural interests. The Russian-dominated Crimean peninsula, in the south, already has the status of an autonomous republic within Ukraine.

"I think autonomy is a great idea. If anyone asks me in a referendum, I would vote for it," said Sergei Kiriyev, a Yanukovich campaign worker. "Yushchenko showed during this Orange Revolution that he couldn't work with the Donbass."Also in question is the fate of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma. Yesterday, he called for the two sides to reconcile while acknowledging his own plans to step aside and run a charitable foundation, squelching rumours that he would attempt to retain the presidency.

Ukraine is split "along both ideological and, to a certain extent, along geographical lines," Mr. Kuchma said. "I think that this is the biggest challenge for both the future president and the entire political elite, if we want the best for Ukraine."