Ukraine candidates clash over west in final appeals
The two rivals in Ukraine's re-run of a rigged presidential election clashed over relations with the West on Friday in their final pitches to voters at the close of a campaign that has thrown the ex-Soviet state into turmoil.
Liberal opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, the favorite in Sunday's contest after vast crowds supporting him took to the streets to denounce fraud in the previous ballot, said Ukraine's strategic task was to begin integrating with Europe.
Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, declared the winner in last month's poll later annulled by the Supreme Court, accused opponents of serving foreign groups trying to seize power. The prime minister says he was robbed of victory.
Sunday's vote is the third in less than two months.
Yushchenko, recovering from dioxin poisoning he blames on authorities, told reporters he would win and stressed his pledge to nudge Ukraine toward Europe.
"I will win because I already won the first and second rounds. And this time I will win the third round," he said.
"Whatever cheating may still occur, it will not affect the political outcome of the election ... Millions came into the street to defend their choice. I am convinced this will again be the case on Dec. 26."
The opposition leader, his face still disfigured by the poisoning, has also appealed to voters in Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine, the prime minister's stronghold.
But, he told reporters: "Let me say today that Ukraine's strategic interest lies in integrating with Europe."
LONG ROAD TO EUROPE
That meant securing status as a market economy, joining the World Trade Organization and then launching difficult talks on joining the European Union -- three member states of which now lie on its western border.
Yanukovich, backed earlier by Kuchma but now critical of him, favors closer ties with Russia. He denounces the mass protests as an "orange coup" by Yushchenko's supporters in his orange campaign colors.
Speaking to 5,000 supporters in the capital, he said a vote for him would allow Ukrainians to run their own affairs.
"The most important thing is that we alone shall be masters on our land. Don't you agree?" he bellowed in a hoarse voice.
He said the West feared Ukraine as a competitor and "spent huge sums to converge on our country with go-betweens to seize power and remove competition. Will we allow them to do this?"
Kuchma said voters had to decide which path Ukraine was to take, but change in any society had to come gradually.
Both sides, he said in a television address, had yielded to "the temptation to claim glory for themselves and blame their adversaries for sins of all sorts, real and imagined."
"I view with understanding everything that occurred in recent weeks in Ukraine," he said. "Authorities took no steps involving the use of force, even to uphold public order."
Yushchenko, who predicts he will win at least 60 percent of the vote, says he will start building an economy free of the scandals that plagued Kuchma's 10 years in office. '