Ukrainian presidential candidates trade accusations

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's two presidential candidates faced off Monday in a televised debate less than a week before a rerun of their disputed election, with opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko accusing his rival of trying to steal the Nov. 21 vote.

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych responded by saying Yushchenko was dragging up past accusations and refusing to look forward to Ukraine's future.

Yushchenko was the first to speak, telling the television audience in Ukrainian that "the reason that collected us here today was that the results of the Nov. 21 votes were stolen ... by my opponent and his team."

In his turn to make introductory remarks, Yanukovych spoke in Russian: "Your accusations toward me and toward my voters don't give us the chance to look into the future optimistically."

"Today, Viktor Andreyevich, we have to discuss how to unite Ukraine and not divide it," Yanukovych said, addressing Yushchenko using his first name and patronymic.

Rules for the 100-minute debate allowed the two candidates to ask each other questions directly after first giving their opening statements.

Yushchenko, referring to his background in economics, used his first question to quiz his opponent about the "nature of your mistakes."

Yanukovych, in turn, defended his record, recalling a recent one-time increase in pensions and promised that he would again raise benefits to retirees.

"You are living in the sphere of abstract numbers," Yanukovych told Yushchenko.

Yanukovych later tried to bring the focus to campaign financing, hinting at funds from abroad to finance his rival's campaign.

Yushchenko showing his hands said: "These hands have never taken anything."

Before the encounter, Yushchenko said he wanted a "professional" debate with Yanukovych.

It was their first debate since the Nov. 21 runoff was annulled by the Supreme Court because of massive fraud and came amid tensions fueled by massive street protests and revelations that Yushchenko was poisoned by dioxin in September.

Rules for the 100-minute debate allowed the two candidates to ask each other questions directly. Foreign policy, the economy and social benefits were expected to dominate.

Yushchenko had said he wanted a "professional" debate with Yanukovych, and his assistant, lawmaker Oleh Rybachuk, said Yushchenko "will not punch low."

"The debate cannot be spoiled by throwing dirt and going below the level of a presidential candidate," Rybachuk said.

Parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn told reporters, however, he expects something more "malicious" than the previous debate on Nov. 15, which also saw personal attacks.

Ukrainians crammed into cafes and restaurants to watch the first debate, and even more were expected to tune in Monday.

The two candidates spent Monday preparing in markedly different styles, Ukraine's daily Segodnya reported. Yushchenko read books about economics and history, while Yanukovych visited Kiev's Orthodox Monastery of Caves where he prayed, the paper said.

Tensions continue to spiral in Ukraine as the two candidates warned of potential provocations leading up to the Dec. 26 vote. Yushchenko's assertion that Ukrainian security officials tried to poison him at a dinner -- and scientists' determination that a highly toxic dioxin was used -- has further roiled the campaign.

His face has been badly disfigured and he has undergone treatment at an Austrian hospital.

Meanwhile, an opposition convoy -- dubbed the "friendship journey" -- is traveling around this divided nation of 48 million trying to sow support for Yushchenko in mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions where Yanukovych draws most of his backing.

Some 50 cars -- carrying mostly artists and musicians and draped with Yushchenko's orange campaign colors -- visited the industrial city of Zaporizhia on Monday and was heading for the city of Dnipropetrovsk, said Olga Khodovanets, a convoy coordinator.

In Kiev, a convoy of fewer than a dozen cars sporting Yanukovych's blue-and-white banners drove through the streets. Nearby marched a small group of elderly Ukrainians holding icons and pro-Yanukovych flags.

Late Sunday, assailants hurled a firebomb at Yushchenko's campaign office in the city of Mariupil in the Donetsk region, a statement posted on his party Web site said. There were no injuries, but the office was seriously damaged in an ensuing fire.

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