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Ukraine: Presidential Contenders Fight To A Draw In Televised Debate

Last night saw a television debate between the two candidates in Ukraine's upcoming presidential election. The government's pro-Russian candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and the pro-Western opposition candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, gained an almost equal share of the vote -- around 40 percent -- in the first round on 31 October and will face each other in a runoff on 21 November. The debate was the first such televised standoff in Ukraine in about 10 years, and for many people in the nation of some 48 million people, it was a first chance to actually see Yushchenko on television. Both candidates were judged by their own supporters to have done well, and there was no startling knockout punch by either man.

Kyiv, 16 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A televised debate between Ukraine's presidential candidates has attracted wide attention, with many observers saying the encounter last night ended in a draw.

The two runoff candidates -- Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko, a Western-leaning former prime minister -- traded criticisms and accusations over issues such as corruption, the economiy, social issues, and domestic and foreign affairs.

Yanukovych said his opponent's campaign is "built on complete lies." Yushchenko said the conflict is between two moral systems. "Today, we have a conflict between transparent politics and politicking," he said. "This is not a conflict between two victors but a conflict between two world views, two moral systems. And our choice is very simple. Either we will live by the rules of criminals, or we will live as free and prosperous people."

Yanukovych emphasized that he had only been in the top echelons of government for the last two years but had achieved much in that time. His recurrent theme was that Yushchenko had brought Ukraine to economic ruin during his 19 months as prime minister in 2000 and 2001 and earlier in his job as head of the National Bank.

He blamed Yushchenko for driving economic activity into the semi-legal barter form of trade that avoids taxes and is part of what is known as the "shadow economy."

"There was a huge barter economy, and barter is the turning of an economy into a shadow economy. This is the shadow that past governments drove the economy into and was also the work of the National Bank, which was headed by the honorable Mr. Yushchenko," Yanukovych said.

Yushchenko said there are two main pillars to his program for Ukraine if he becomes president. The first is economic. He said the task is to change the situation from one of almost permanent political crisis. "To move from political crisis to an economy of stable growth. That is the first task. On the basis of such an economy to create new jobs, proper salaries, and to maintain stable prices," he said. "This, I and my government did in 2000 and 2001, and we will do it now. And this is one of the fundamental elements of my election manifesto."

He said the other main pillar is political and involves fighting corruption. "Here, I want to talk about corruption. Corruption, my friends, is not something distant that involves a bureaucrat far away from us or that we come across only once a year. I am sure that for Ukrainians, corruption is the thing that ruins our society, our morale and our lifestyle. Corruption is widespread, and people want to see a candidate who offers a future without corruption and who himself would be honest," Yushchenko said.
International observers criticized the election's first round on 31 October because of official interference and evident bias toward Yanukovych on state television.

One of the most bitter issues during the election campaign has been Ukraine's relations with Russia. Yanukovych has tried to win the vote in Ukraine's east and south, where most of the country's ethnic Russians live and where the population includes ethnic Ukrainians who speak Russian.

Yanukovych has promised to make Russian a state language and give dual nationality to citizens of both countries. He has portrayed Yushchenko as virulently anti-Russian. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Ukraine twice in the last few weeks in an apparent effort to bolster support for the prime minister.

As for foreign policy, Yanukovych said it should be linked to the economy and that Ukraine should build trade relations with partners such as the European Union, the United States, and China.

But he made it clear that the most important relations for him are those with Russia and that he supports the creation of the Moscow-led Single Economic Space with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. "As concerns Russia, you know that we have done a lot recently to significantly improve relations with Russia and on this basis to build a strong economy. The creation of a Single Economic Space is a step to the future," he said. "It's a step to ensure that we have the possibility in the near future to prop up the standard of living that we currently have -- that is not to lower it -- and only to increase the level of the economy. This is the basis of our relations with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and this is what is foreseen by the Single Economic Space."

Yushchenko stressed that he is not hostile to Russia and regards Moscow as a strategic partner. He said it is vital that Ukraine have excellent relations with Russia. But he said that it is also in Ukraine's interests to seek closer relations with the European Union, which is the world's biggest market for exporters, something he said Russia is well aware of because it conducts most of its trade with the EU.

Yushchenko said he believes EU membership is possible for Ukraine if there is a change of government.

International observers criticized the election's first round on 31 October because of official interference and evident bias toward Yanukovych on state television.

Yushchenko won in the first-round vote with less than 1 percentage point separating him from Yanukovych.

The director of the Institute for Global Strategy think tank in Kyiv, Vadym Karasov, said he believes both men came across in last night's debate as well-prepared and strong. He said the debate will likely have a big impact on undecided voters, which he estimates at making up to 12 percent of the electorate.

[For full coverage of Ukraine's presidential elections, see RFE/RL's Ukraine web page.]

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