Monday December 27, 10:16 AM
Yushchenko claims triumph in Ukraine: "Now we are free," he declares
Pro-West opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko claimed victory in Ukraine's historic presidential election rerun, telling supporters the vote was a triumph for the country and proclaiming that "now we are free" from dominance by neighboring Russia.
Speaking in a hall at his campaign headquarters packed with journalists and campaign activists, the man who led the "orange revolution" that shook Ukraine for weeks said: "It has happened.
"For 14 years we have been independent, but now we are free. This is a victory for the Ukrainian people, for the Ukrainian nation," the 50-year-old opposition leader and former prime minister said as his audience broke into applause and chants of "Yu-shchenk-ko! Yu-shchen-ko!"
Yushchenko appeared in public as the central election commission reported that he held a 16-point lead over his pro-Russian opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, with more than 63 percent of the country's precincts reporting results.
The commission credited Yushchenko with 55.98 percent of the vote, compared to 40.2 percent for Yanukovich. Three independent exit polls published at the close of voting Sunday gave Yushchenko at least a 15-point lead over his rival.
A Yushchenko win would mark a dramatic political turnaround in a country where only last month state broadcast media all but banished him from the airwaves and Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly backed Yanukovich.
The 54-year-old Yanukovich was officially declared winner of a November 21 presidential ballot and was twice congratulated by Putin, but Yushchenko supporters protested that result which was later judged fraudulent and thrown out by the supreme court.
"Today we are turning the page on human disrespect, censorship, lies and violence," he said. "People who were dragging the country toward the abyss are today stepping into the past."
After speaking at his campaign headquarters, Yushchenko returned to Kiev's central Independence Square where he told tens of thousands of cheering supporters, many waving orange flags, that "an independent and free Ukraine now lies before us."
He repeated his call however for his supporters to remain in the square until he is officially confirmed as the winner of the election.
Earlier, Yanukovich held a press conference where he stopped short of conceding defeat but promised to fight in a new opposition should his rival assume the presidency.
"I expect to win, but if I am defeated then a strong opposition will be created, it will be in the parliament" and Yushchenko "will learn what an opposition really is," the 54-year-old Yanukovich vowed.
Yushchenko, whose support is strongest in the agrarian, nationalist Ukrainian-speaking west of the country has pledged to lead Ukraine toward eventual membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Yanukovich, whose base is in the industrialized, Russian-speaking east, pledged to preserve and fortify traditional ties with Russia and thus enjoyed backing from Moscow prior to a November 21 vote that he officially won but was riddled with fraud and annulled.
Apart from the east-west split within Ukraine itself, the battle to succeed President Leonid Kuchma has also enflamed tensions between a West seeking to accelerate democratic development here and Russia which has bridled at what it sees as encroachment into its strategic backyard.
The United States, which has rejected accusations from Yanukovich and Russia that it financed Yushchenko's campaign, warned Ukrainian authorities after the voting ended to make sure the count was honest.
"We hope for a free, fair vote that meets international standards and results in an outcome truly reflecting the will of Ukraine's people," a State Department spokesman said in Washington.
Throughout the evening after polls closed, Kiev's Independence Square, the locus of dramatic protests following the contested November 21 election, was again the center of a raucous and jubilant pro-Yushchenko street party.
Some 12,500 observers from dozens of international and domestic institutions and a number of foreign governments were registered to monitor the voting, compared to the 5,000 who observed the previous runoff vote.
Violence that some feared could occur between the bitterly-divided supporters of the two camps failed to materialize and the country's interior ministry reported shortly before polls closed that the election had been carried out with no unusual incidents.
Apart from the national and international tensions it has generated, the Ukrainian election campaign was marked by a dioxin poisoning episode that took Yushchenko off the stump last September with a severe illness that has left his face sallow, puffy and pock-marked.
Yushchenko has insisted it was an attempt to murder him. He fell ill the day after having dinner with the chief of Ukraine's SBU intelligence service, Ihor Smeshko, who has denied that he or his agency had any role in the poisoning.