KYIV --In what appears to be a stunning reversal of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, pro-Moscow opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych looks set to win the country's presidential election.
With almost all votes counted from the February 7 runoff, Yanukovych has a lead of some 2.8 percentage points over Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, meaning she can't overtake him.
"Even if you think that all the votes that have yet to be counted would go to one candidate...you know it means [there will be no change], and that is the answer to your question," said Volodymyr Shapoval, chairman of Ukraine's Central Election Commission. "It's hard for me to say what will happen, to sign the last protocol is always a problem."
A win for Yanukovych would complete a dramatic reversal of fortune for a man seen as the villain of the Orange Revolution in 2004. His victory in a rigged presidential election then brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets in protests that helped overturn the result. But Ukrainians have been disillusioned by five years of bitter infighting between the Orange Revolution's leaders.
This afternoon, international observers hailed Ukraine's vote as "an impressive display" of democracy. The observers, headed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in a statement called on Ukraine's political leaders to ensure a "peaceful and constructive" transition of power after the vote. The pan-European rights watchdog said in a statement that the electoral process "met most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments."
A Switch To Russian
At his campaign headquarters in Kyiv's lavish new Intercontinental Hotel -- where hefty party bigwigs relaxed around dinner tables -- a smiling Yanukovych declared victory and urged Tymoshenko to concede defeat.
"I believe we took the first step toward uniting the country," he said, "which is something that's important, and that I need."
Yanukovych's main message wasn't in what he said but in what language he spoke: not Ukrainian but Russian.
The former communist official was plucked from obscurity in 2004 by then-President Leonid Kuchma to be his successor. Moscow openly backed his campaign.
Since then, the stout 59-year-old -- who often appears awkward when speaking in public -- has tried to position himself as a centrist figure and switched to giving most of his speeches in Ukrainian.
Yanukovych's reversion to Russian in his speech last night was a nod to his base of support in mainly Russian-speaking, industrial eastern Ukraine, where many want better ties with Russia.
In a country whose electorate is split almost exactly in half, Yanukovych's choice of Russian can't have gone over well in western Ukraine, the seat of the Orange electorate where people favor integration into the European Union and many refuse to speak Russian.
A Yanukovych win would also be welcomed in Moscow as a victory in its struggle for influence with the West in former Soviet republics. The Kremlin has bitterly opposed Ukraine's drive to join NATO, something Yanukovych has said he would stop.
Down But Not Out
But Tymoshenko hasn't conceded defeat. In a defiant appearance at her own campaign headquarters last night, the former natural-gas tycoon -- whose braided blond crown and glamorous white outfits have branded her as Ukraine personified -- said exit polls indicating her defeat were only "sociology" and not a real vote count.
"I'm convinced that there are more of those who voted for a European, democratic, strong Ukraine than those who don't see the country that way," she said. Tymoshenko urged her campaign staff to "fight" for every ballot during the vote count by ensuring a fair tally, saying the election could come down to a single vote.
The two candidates fought a bitter campaign in which Yanukovych often called Tymoshenko a liar and Tymoshenko said Yanukovych's victory would bring criminals to power. Each accused the other of preparing to falsify the election.
But many Ukrainians are now deeply disappointed by what they say are the revolution leaders' broken promises to clean up rampant corruption and reform the economy. They're also suffering the effects of a devastating economic crisis.
The two candidates, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych, cast their ballots, as does outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko. Also, activists from a radical feminist movement, Femen, call on politicians "not to rape Ukraine." (video by Reuters):
A Vote 'Against All'
Much will be made in coming days of President Viktor Yushchenko's role in the election.
Tymoshenko's estranged Orange Revolution partner changed the election rules three days before the vote, one of several actions that prompted accusations he would do anything to help Tymoshenko lose.
Political science scholar Oleksiy Haran, of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, says Yushchenko's decision played a role in the outcome. "The results clearly show that it weren't for the call by Yushchenko and [former Foreign Minister Arseniy] Yatsenyuk, who speak to the Orange electorate, to vote 'against all,' Tymoshenko probably would have won," he said.
The Central Election Commission put the vote for "against all" at more than 4 percent.
Overshadowing the vote count are accusations of ballot stuffing and other electoral violations by both sides.
Some believe Tymoshenko may contest the tally in court. She has also vowed to bring on a second Orange Revolution if she believes Yanukovych rigged the polls, a call she didn't repeat on election day.
But after casting her ballot for Tymoshenko in central Kyiv, Tatyana Pavlyk said she doubted Ukrainians would take to the streets. "[In 2004], they turned out for the idea [of democracy]," she said, "but now they don't believe either of the two candidates can change anything in the country for the better."
The atmosphere in Tymoshenko's headquarters was grim last night, and some supporters were already privately admitting defeat, saying Tymoshenko would concentrate on backroom negotiations to bring a potential standoff to an end.
If she concedes, Tymoshenko will remain a powerful prime minister able to challenge Yanukovych's rule.
Most Ukrainians expect him to call snap parliamentary elections in May in the hope his party will win a majority that would force Tymoshenko from office.
Yanukovych is also likely to change the constitution to restore powers to the presidency that were transferred away in 2006.
In what sounded very much like a victory speech at his campaign headquarters, Yanukovych said he would bring Ukraine out of its devastating economic crisis.
Whoever wins the presidency will have to reopen talks with the International Monetary Fund, which last year froze a $16.4 billion bailout.
Yanukovych has also said he wants to renegotiate a gas supply deal with Moscow, which some believe would enable him to reestablish closer ties with Russia's Gazprom.