Rival candidates Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych faced off yesterday in a repeat election triggered by a fraudulent runoff vote and massive protests that resulted in an unprecedented third round in Ukraine's fiercely waged presidential contest.
The vote is momentous for Ukraine, a nation of 48 million people caught between an eastward-expanding European Union and NATO, and an increasingly assertive Russia, its former imperial and Soviet-era master.
Opposition candidate Yushchenko, a former Central Bank chief and prime minister, wants to bring Ukraine closer to the West, while the Kremlin-backed Yanukovych, the current prime minister, emphasizes tightening the Slavic country's ties with Russia as a means to maintaining stability.
Oresta Stepanchuk, a Kiev teacher, said she was casting her ballot for Yushchenko "because he offers us some prospects, some decent life." Another voter at the same precinct, Mykola Vladimirov, said he supported Yanukovych because "the others will sell the country to Americans."
"At least we now have a chance to live as independent people, but with him [Yushchenko] we will be no more than American slaves," he said.
Yushchenko, whose face remains badly scarred from dioxin poisoning he blamed on Ukrainian authorities, has emerged as the front-runner, building on the momentum of round-the-clock protests that echoed the spirit of the anti-Communist revolutions that swept other East European countries in 1989-90.
His backers launched the demonstrations after Yanukovych was named the winner of the fraudulent Nov. 21 presidential runoff. The Supreme Court later annulled the results and ordered Sunday's repeat vote -- an unprecedented third round being monitored by a 12,000 international observers.
Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma said he cast his ballot hoping the results will stick. "In my opinion, the one who loses should call and congratulate the winner ... and put an end to this prolonged election campaign."