Kyiv, 28 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Passions have risen the past couple of weeks in Ukraine as the country heads toward a presidential election on 31 October.
The latest polls show the two candidates, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych -- the choice of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma and his government -- and the main opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, are almost level.
But after two weeks of bomb explosions, alleged discoveries of explosives and weapons in opposition premises, street violence, and rumors of terrorism, the country is tense. The biggest issue has become whether the vote will be fair and peaceful.
Sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina said that weeks ago, before a statutory ban on preelection polling kicked in, opinion polls showed an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians believe the election will be unfair. "And that's very sad," Bekeshkina said. "As I said right at the beginning of the year and repeat now that for Ukraine it's not only very important who wins but how the election is conducted -- whether these elections bring us closer to democracy or whether we are taking a big jump backward."
She and others say the vote could determine whether Ukraine steers a course toward democratic reform, the European Union and NATO, or whether it will draw ever closer to Russia.
Yanukovych is seen as broadly pro-Russian, while Yushchenko is broadly pro-Western.
Yanukovych is highlighting Ukraine's improving economy. He is also courting the country's Russian minority - estimated at 15 to 20 percent of the population. He's promised to make Russian a second state language and give them dual nationality.
Yanukovych has tried to portray Yushchenko as an American agent and has repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that his wife is a U.S. citizen.
Yushchenko, the former head of the Ukrainian National Bank, says he deserves credit for the economy and has promised to create 5 million jobs in his first term. He has also promised to cut the time conscripts serve in the army from 18 months to a year -- and to just nine months for students.
In recent weeks there have been accusations by all candidates of dirty tricks.
Yushchenko and his followers in the Our Ukraine opposition coalition have made much of Yanukovych's two convictions and prison sentences for assault in the 1970s. They say a former criminal cannot be a worthy president.
The opposition accuses Yanukovych of being a leading member of the "Donetsk" clan -- one of Ukraine's three most powerful groupings of business oligarchs and reputed criminals.
One of Yushchenko's key allies, the leader of the Batkivschyna (Fatherland) party, Yulia Tymoshenko, told an election rally this week that the aim of the clans is to use Yanukovych to hang on to their power.
"And if we don't realize this then Yanukovych will not just come for five years, because in five years of their power they will eradicate from Ukrainian territory from any different views, and they will come for ever and will rule Ukraine always," Tymoshenko warned.
Yanukovych's election manager, Stepan Havrysh, said the accusations are defamatory.
"The presidential campaign in Ukraine is being conducted in an unusually hostile manner, in a conflicting way, and with complications," Havrysh said. "There are many dirty tricks being done, individuals are being discredited, and particularly this is used in the criticism of candidate Yanukovych."
Yanukovych has tried to portray Yushchenko as an American agent and has repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that his wife is a U.S. citizen. Yushchenko has said at many rallies that his wife's parents were both born in Ukraine and her father served in the Red Army during the war and was captured by the Germans.
Violence has increased over the last two weeks and the government has accused the opposition of causing explosions and planning to use terror if it fails to win the election.
Yushchenko's supporters believe the explosions have been caused by government agents and that army and police units as well as provocateurs in civilian clothing are being readied. Yushchenko said he has information from a very good source that more bombings are planned.
"Explosions are planned for the eastern election districts, principally in the Donbas region, Luhansk, Crimea, and the Kharkiv region, so that afterwards, for the second round, they can have all the pretext they need to say that this is the work of Our Ukraine, the democrats, and of terrorism," Yushchenko said.
Havrysh rejected the notion his candidate is behind the violence.
"The thesis, spread by Victor Yushchenko's team, that has become an element of the complex dirty tricks being used that the government is preparing a scenario-entailing conflict can today be dismissed, as the government has proved that by declarations and its work aimed at stabilizing the situation that any scenarios involving conflict will not happen and are not expected," Havrysh said.
The OSCE, which will field 600 election monitors, issued an interim report this week and said it was disturbed by some aspects, especially the limited access of the opposition to the media.
The Parliamentary Committee of the Council of Europe announced this week it will send 40 observers. A Council of Europe delegation that visited Ukraine last month said it received "extensive information indicating that the election may be conducted in a manner not meeting Council of Europe standards."