Despite freezing temperatures, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have rallied in the capital Kiev overnight, as the national divide created by the country’s presidential election deepened. Opposition leader Victor Yushchenko called on his supporters to keep up their protest after official results showed him the loser in the vote. Prime Minister, Moscow-backed Victor Yanukovich, has already been congratulated on winning the election by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But the West is unhappy with the ballot and international election observers say the government is implicated in extensive fraud. The country is split – western regions and the capital say they will only recognise Yushchenko as their president. In the east they have welcomed Yanukovich’s victory.
Protesters in Kiev waved Georgian flags, a reminder of the mass protests that drove Eduard Shevardnadze from office there a year ago after a rigged presidential vote. The Kiev crowds did dwindle as temperatures dropped below zero shortly after midnight, but were still substantial.
Meanwhile the reaction from the security services was confusing. It disowned a statement on its website vowing to put down any lawlessness “quickly and firmly”.
At Yanukovich’s head quarters, the party faithful have been quietly celebrating victory, despite the lack of final results and the opposition rallies. The prime minister himself offered a conciliatory message to Ukrainians in a special address.
He ruled out future cooperation with what he described as “those who call people to the barricades” and dismissed Yushchenko as one of a “small group of radicals”. But he said there should be negotiations to calm the current situation. And he promised the vision of those who had voted for his opponent would be respected.
Yanukovich’s supporters also took to the streets; the biggest rally in favour of the prime minister was in Donetsk in the east. When Ukraine, potentially an industrial and agricultural powerhouse, gained independence a decade ago, it was still well within the former Soviet block. Now it borders three European Union member states. The current situation could be a sign the traditional divide between the Russian-speaking east and the nationalist west is growing bigger.