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Ukraine rivals to meet in live TV debate
Updated: 2004-12-20 21:08

KIEV, Ukraine - Rivals in Ukraine's scandal-ridden presidential polls will meet Monday in a live television debate likely to be the climax of their campaigns ahead of Sunday's decisive rerun vote.

Hundreds of thousands of supporters of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko rebelled against the result of a run-off vote on Nov. 21, marked by heavy fraud in favor of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, forcing the Supreme Court to order the rerun.

The peaceful street protests, dubbed the "Orange Revolution," have given a strong morale boost to Yushchenko. But the crisis has also highlighted a historic fault line in the country between the nationalist western regions and the Russian-speaking east.

At the height of the crisis, several eastern regions supporting Yanukovich threatened to hold a referendum on stronger autonomy from Kiev if Yushchenko was declared the winner.

Analysts said both candidates would have to address the new challenges in their TV duel due to be broadcast on main channels at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT).

"The problems of separatism, ... conflict between east and west were not that important before the initial run-off," Oleksander Lytvynenko, a political analyst at Kiev's Razumkov center for economic and political research, told Reuters.

"This time it will be interesting to see a clear position of both candidates on these issues," he added.

Reflecting the dramatic changes in the Ukrainian political scene, the candidates will trade questions in the debate -- a huge contrast to their previous timid television encounter in which they were allowed only to make statements on specific issues agreed beforehand.

In the first debate, Yanukovich, referring to a mystery ailment that has facially disfigured the 50-year-old Yushchenko, suggested he would be unable for health reasons to carry out the duties of president.

Since then, doctors have said Yushchenko was the victim of deliberate dioxin poisoning and it was not clear if Yanukovich would now bring the subject up again.

Yushchenko himself says he is fit to be president, but does not want his health to be a campaign issue.

"I expect voters' interest in this debate to be even higher than in the previous one," Lytvynenko said. The previous debate was watched by about half of Ukraine's adult population.


Ahead of Sunday's vote, candidates have had to adjust their electoral pledges to take into account issues raised by the "Orange Revolution."

Yushchenko, who wants Ukraine to become a Western-style democracy with a liberal economy free of bureaucratic red tape, has visited eastern Ukraine, promising state support to its struggling Soviet-era heavy industries and a more liberal approach to the Russian language dominant in the area.

Yanukovich, for his part, has made a desperate attempt to distance himself from outgoing President Leonid Kuchma and create the new image of an independent candidate critical of the current administration.

Segodnya daily newspaper suggested that both Yushchenko and Yanukovich will use the debate to sell their latest ideas to voters and discredit the other's new image.

Segodnya said Yushchenko is likely to link his rival with election fraud, address the problems of eastern Ukraine and attack the latest government decisions to raise pensions and social benefits as populist.

Yanukovich is expected to make the point that he is no longer a part of the ruling regime challenged by the "orange revolution," and blame its organizers of putting at risk the national economy, the paper said.

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