Political tensions are on the rise in Ukraine in advance of this weekend's presidential election.
The country's prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, has stepped up attacks on rival Viktor Yanukovych, accusing him of planning a campaign of widespread fraud to secure the top spot.
Most analysts predict that neither candidate will top the 50 percent needed for victory in the January 17 poll, but Yanukovych, a former prime minister backed by wealthy industrialists, is expected to come in ahead of Tymoshenko.
If needed, a runoff will take place on February 7.
Tymoshenko, an energetic, image-savvy performer who sports a trademark thick, blonde braided hairstyle, accused Yanukovych and his Party of Regions this week of planning a campaign of voter fraud through falsified absentee ballots and other methods.
Characterizing it as "a large-scale falsification in Ukraine," Tymoshenko said Yanukovych has "formed on a corrupt basis a puppet majority in the Central Election Commission."
Experts are warning of the possibility of postelection unrest.
Meanwhile, Yanukovych has warned that his supporters will not allow any candidate to steal the current presidential contest, as he claims happened in 2004's Orange Revolution, when his initial victory was thrown out by the Supreme Court following street protests.
The eventual winner back then was current President Viktor Yushchenko, who is standing for reelection. But his popularity has plunged and his chances look slim. He has warned that the elections could usher in an authoritarian government.Touting Government Achievements
Tymoshenko sat down with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on January 14 just after the candidate had delivered a three-hour televised address.
The prime minister's heavy speaking schedule left her hoarse, but she showed no other signs of flagging energy.
Asked what she considered her main achievement as prime minister, Tymoshenko singled out her success leading Ukraine out of financial crisis.
"I think the main result of the government's work during this 18-month crisis is that Ukraine was able to come out of the crisis stronger, not shattered, not in pieces, not devoid of blood, or lost," Tymoshenko said. "In the midst of the crisis, we renewed Ukraine's aviation industry, built the most powerful hydroelectric station, managed to reach leading positions in the agrarian sector in the world...[and] did not let the agrarian sector to drop its production even half a percent. We are building what is needed for the EURO 2012 [soccer championship]. We modernized factories. Yes, it was difficult, but during a crisis, things are difficult."
Ukraine has been frustrated in its aspirations to join NATO, the trans-Atlantic military alliance, and in recent years has also begun looking toward the European Union.
But the EU has watched with dismay as the campaign season turned nasty and became dominated by political sniping instead of open discussions about the country's problems.
Tymoshenko vowed that, if elected, she would work to get Ukraine into the EU within five years, and to that end would enact key economic reforms to boost the country's finances.
She cited three areas for particular focus.
"First, create the right investment climate, then money will flow into Ukraine, including tax money," Tymoshenko said. "Second, we need to remove the yoke from the neck of small and middle-sized businesses. Today they are not developing; they are suffering and dying out. Third, create a tax system in which it is impossible to avoid paying taxes. Taxes will be minimal but mandatory. It is clear that today 80 percent of our tax funds are simply not there due to tax evasion and shadowy machinations."The Russia Question
Yanukovych has long been the country's traditional pro-Russian candidate.
But after Tymoshenko and her former Orange Revolution partner Yushchenko fell out, she fostered closer relations with the country's giant eastern neighbor.
Now she's often asked her views on Russia as a partner.
"I think it must be pleasant for Ukraine to have its prime minister speak with the prime minister of Russia as an equal -- safeguarding national interests, enforcing national policy, building energy independence," Tymoshenko said. "This is how I will continue to build our relations, on an equal level, always including and expanding Ukraine's national interests."
Tymoshenko is also frequently asked about -- and criticized for -- her wealth, which is said to be vast and attained through ill-gotten gains in the mid-90s when she was director of Unified Energy Systems of Ukraine, the country's largest gas importer.
Her critics say she created a virtual monopoly on buying and selling gas and her personal fortunes profited handsomely -- a charge she rejects.
Her assets are transparent, she said, adding that people looking for evidence of corruption should cast their gaze on Yanukovych:
"What my family currently has is a rented building and a small building that we own together with a garden. And unlike other politicians, we don't have anything that has been taken from the state," Tymoshenko said. "When people compare who is corrupt, it would be just to look and see that neither I nor any members of my family have anything of the sort."
She went on to suggest that "Yanukovych has everything," listing a luxurious prime minister's dacha in Mezhyhiria, outside the capital, and "a huge sanatorium in Crimea that looks like a palace."
"I would also like to ask where the president got 13 hectares of land in the Kyiv area?" Tymoshenko asked. "Therefore, when we talk about corruption, let's speak about each presidential candidate specifically -- what did each of them take from the state?"written by Heather Maher based on an interview conducted by RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Inna Kuznetsova