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THE WORLD

Yanukovich Stokes Backers' Fears

At rallies, the premier says that foreigners will dominate Ukraine if his rival is elected president.

December 16, 2004|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

KHERSON, Ukraine — At one campaign stop after another Wednesday, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich hammered a new message in his presidential rematch against pro-Western opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko: Vote for me, or the foreigners will steal your country and make you slaves.

"We won't allow such a huge country as Ukraine to be humiliated," Yanukovich declared to a rally of about 8,000 supporters in this southeastern city, thrusting both arms into the air with clenched fists.

"Away with Yushchenko," the crowd chanted. "Away with the Americans."

Yanukovich, who has a reputation as an uninspiring bureaucrat, blew kisses and smiled.

In campaign stops here and in the nearby city of Mykolaiv, Yanukovich gave cheering gatherings of students, shipyard workers and other supporters a different version of the events that led to massive protests for three weeks in central Kiev's Independence Square.

To most of the world, those Yushchenko supporters were protesting electoral fraud. Their "Orange Revolution," named after Yushchenko's campaign color, was largely successful, thanks in part to diplomatic support from the European Union and the United States. The Ukrainian Supreme Court threw out the results of the November balloting, won by Yanukovich according to the official count, and set a rematch for Dec. 26. Parliament approved laws to prevent electoral fraud.

In his speeches, Yanukovich made this argument: In his two years as prime minister, Ukraine had become a powerful exporter. That frightened its rivals in the West, and they set up nongovernmental organizations inside Ukraine to steal its sovereignty. When he beat Yushchenko, the foreign-backed team carried out an "Orange coup." That action not only illegally overturned the legitimate election result but prompted parliament to pass legislation that deprived many elderly citizens of their right to vote from home.

"It's our duty, at this moment of truth, to do everything to prevent our country from being taken over by those who came with foreign money to enslave our people and make our country a foreign colony," he said. "This is a test for our generation, and we must pass it decisively. We have to win, and we will win."

As Yanukovich lambasted foreign interference in his speech at the Kherson rally, a woman in the crowd began to pray out loud: "God, please throw those foreigners out of this land."

Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other groups said serious abuse of absentee and at-home voting occurred in the runoff. Loose controls on both meant that multiple voting and suspected computer manipulation of vote tallies could be more easily hidden, they said.

The new electoral law placed severe restrictions on absentee voting and limited at-home voting to categories of people least able to get to polling places.

Yanukovich, who is on leave from his post as prime minister for the duration of the campaign, has broken politically with outgoing President Leonid D. Kuchma, partly because of his former mentor's willingness to sign the electoral restrictions into law. The new rules will disenfranchise 4 million voters, many of them his supporters, Yanukovich said Wednesday.

"I ask you to bring to the polling stations those whose right to vote was taken away," he told the Kherson rally. "Don't let them take advantage of taking away the vote from those who can't go to vote by themselves."

Speaking to hundreds of elderly supporters in a union auditorium, Yanukovich emphasized that after the revote, his supporters might challenge Yushchenko's backers for control of the streets of Kiev, the capital, unlike the situation that followed the Nov. 21 balloting. At that time, there were widespread concerns that coal miners from Yanukovich's key support base in eastern Ukraine might clash with opposition protesters, but that did not happen.

"When the miners came to Kiev and they were joined by my other supporters, I did everything possible for fights not to happen," Yanukovich said. "I said that I didn't need power if it was going to cost a single drop of blood.... I know that organizations have been formed that have the goal to defend our choice, and the numbers are quite high."

Yanukovich said that during a campaign trip Tuesday to the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, he was told that 35,000 volunteers there were ready to go to Kiev.

"I expressed my point of view," he said. "But they told me this: 'We don't trust the Orange. We saw the illegal things that they let happen in the country, and we saw that the current authorities joined them. That's why we'll be protecting our rights by ourselves.' "

Earlier, in Mykolaiv, Yanukovich said at a news conference that volunteers were planning to go to Kiev from many regions to defend their votes. "As far as I understand, this process cannot be stopped. I hope it's peaceful."

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