Kuchma Promises Election Will Be Fair

ReutersUkrainian miners rallying in support of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych on Independence Square in central Kiev on Thursday.
KIEV -- Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, who is backing his prime minister in a close election to choose his successor, vowed Thursday to ensure Sunday's contest would not be flawed by cheating.

But liberal candidate Viktor Yushchenko said state institutions had been turned into "a machine for falsification" and urged his supporters to take strong action against any electoral fraud they spotted.

Kuchma was addressing reporters at the end of 10 years in power that have been tarnished by political scandals and allegations of an assault on civil liberties.

The runoff presents voters with a stark choice between Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who wants closer ties with Russia and has Kremlin backing, and Yushchenko, an advocate of gradual moves toward integration with Europe.

The election also amounts to a referendum on Kuchma's record.

Yushchenko edged ahead of the prime minister by half a percentage point in the first round on Oct. 31, but accused authorities of cheating to keep him out of office.

First-round voting underlined the division between the nationalist western and central regions backing Yushchenko and the Russian-speaking industrial east solidly behind Yanukovich.

The West has urged Ukraine to stage a clean contest, a call repeated by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in a telephone call to Kuchma on Thursday.

"The president will be legally elected by the Ukrainian people in honest, transparent, democratic elections," Kuchma said at a news conference. "Let me just say that our country is capable of defending its democratic principles. We have the constitutional provisions and political will to do so."

Kuchma, accused by the opposition of curbing press freedom and selling off Ukrainian industry to a wealthy elite, dismissed any notion of cheating as "nonsense."

"I have done everything to keep from interfering in the electoral process on any one side," he said.

In Kiev, Yushchenko's bright orange campaign banners festoon street corners, trail from passing cars and hang from street lighting.

On Thursday, the city's central Independence Square also saw a small rally by trade unionists supporting Yanukovych, most of them decked out in his blue and white campaign colors.

With two days of campaigning left, Yushchenko urged supporters to be ready to take action against cheating.

"You see, authorities are acting brutally and cynically. I will not be stopped. Nor will Ukraine's people, who have the right to choose who governs them," he said in a public appeal. "If someone tries to prevent that, we will resist in a determined fashion. ... We will uphold the law and the constitution."

Yanukovych has gone on the attack in the campaign's final days, accusing his opponent of causing all the country's post-Soviet ills in his own earlier term as prime minister.