Ukraine Voters Must Choose Either Pro-Western or Pro-Russian Candidate

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Moscow ( - Critics have accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to sway voters in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic neighboring Russia, where voters will elect a pro-Western candidate or his pro-Moscow rival this weekend.

Putin is visiting Ukraine this week, officially to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Kiev's liberation from the Nazis.

His visit, however, is seen as providing a boost for Viktor Yanukovich, the election candidate favored both by Moscow and by outgoing Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma.

Because Yanukovich serves as prime minister in the outgoing government, he will feature strongly in state-controlled media coverage of the Kiev liberation anniversary parade, which will be attended by Putin as well as leaders of other former Soviet republics.

Opposition critics note that the government moved the celebration date ahead by one week - from Nov. 6 -- so it would happen three days before the election.

Yanukovich faces a strong challenge in Sunday's election from opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister who favors stronger ties with the West. Polls put the two neck-and-neck.

Putin has denied that his visit was timed to influence the election in favor of Yanukovich, telling Ukrainian TV viewers that Moscow's meddling in Ukraine's politics would be "dangerous and counterproductive."

The opposition is not convinced, however.

One of Yanukovich's electoral promises is the granting of dual Ukraine-Russia citizenship, and on Tuesday, Putin in a live television broadcast expressed support for it.

He also touted the idea of allowing all citizens of countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States to travel freely within the CIS, a move that would please Ukrainian workers who travel to Russia in search of better-paying jobs.

Putin's support for Yanukovich is well-known. The two have met several times in Moscow, and pro-Yanukovich posters have been put up all over the Russian capital, where many Ukrainians live.

A number of polling stations are opening in Russia to serve hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians.

Russian television channels, which are easily accessible in Ukraine, run mostly pro- Yanukovich coverage, while criticizing his opponent, Yushchenko.

The election is expected to show up deep divisions in Ukraine, a country of 48 million people and 37 million voters which used to be the Soviet Union's wheat basket and produced up to one-third of Soviet weapons.

Russian-speakers in the industrialized east favor closer ties and greater integration with Russia.

Yanukovich counts most of his support in eastern regions. He has promised to make Russian the second official language in Ukraine and suggests suspending the country's plans to join the European Union and NATO, which it now borders.

The western part of the country is regarded as more Westward-looking, and Yushchenko is expected to lead the race there. Western Ukraine, which in the past has been a part of Austro-Hungary and Poland, is dominated by nationalists who want closer ties with Europe and NATO.

Russia's interests in Ukraine include the fact that the Black Sea fleet is based at Sevastopol. Moscow is understood to be wary that Yushchenko may move to drive out the fleet, and Putin said in Kiev the presence of the Black Sea fleet was in line with Ukraine's constitution.

Yushchenko issued a statement Tuesday evening warning Putin that his visit, regardless of official pretext, was being seen as related to the presidential campaign.

His supporters charge that criteria for free and fair elections are being violated, saying the government is interfering in the election, and that the candidates are not being given equal access to mass media.

Neither candidate is expected to win the election outright, and failure to do so would see the two frontrunners compete in a run-off in mid-November.

In the event of the second round, both Yanukovich and Yushchenko would be eager to win the support of communists and socialists, a pro-Russian constituency that leans towards Yanukovich.

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