Ukrainian presidential candidates come face to face in a 'gloves-off' TV debate

Posted in Europe | 20-Dec-04 | Author: Askold Krushelnycky| Source: The Independent

Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, left, and his opponent, Prime Minister and Pro-Moscow presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych stand next to each other after negotiations in Kiev.

As the dramatic Ukrainian presidential election rerun enters the final week of campaigning before the Boxing Day ballot, supporters of Viktor Yushchenko rallied support for their candidate in a motorcade that has taken them into the eastern region of the country, long considered the stronghold of his opponent.

About 50 cars, decked in the orange opposition campaign colours, set out on a 2,500-mile journey a week ago to visit the eastern and southern parts of the country where falsification of the election last month was highest, but also where most of the genuine votes cast for Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-backed government candidate, came from.

Weeks of demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters demanding a rerun of the election ended in victory for the masses. But now the opposition wants to spread its message in areas where Mr Yushchenko's views had never been broadcast, or where the only information available about the opposition leader was distorted.

The convoy of cars started out from the capital, Kiev, on 12 December and has visited many areas that are considered strongholds of Mr Yanukovych, including the southern port city of Odessa and the eastern industrial regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Yanukovych supporters have tried to slow the progress of the convoy near Crimea and Odessa but the vehicles have managed to get through and have been welcomed into the areas by their own supporters.

Yesterday the convoy, which consists of some 150 people - mostly artists and musicians who give talks, concerts and shows about the election and the associated fraud - was in the industrial city of Zaporizhia. The convoy's members were worried about aggressive reaction from Yanukovych supporters, and were deciding whether to travel to the city of Donetsk, capital of the Donbass coalmining region and one of his main stronghold areas.

The convoy spokeswoman, Natalya Shypovalova, said: "We need protection to go to Donetsk and we are negotiating that with law enforcement agencies."

Mr Yanukovych has been deserted by many of his former key backers since the Supreme Court overturned the results of last month's election. President Leonid Kuchma, who appointed Mr Yanukovych Prime Minister and handpicked him as his successor, has distanced himself from his protégé. He also agreed to opposition demands to approve measures to curb election fraud, to fire other officials and Yanukovych allies accused of colluding in the election fraud or threatening to stir up a separatist revolt if Mr Yanukovych loses next week's ballot.

According to reports, Mr Yanukovych has become increasingly erratic in the past weeks accusing Mr Kuchma and others of being cowards and liars. He is copying opposition tactics and a small convoy of his supporters yesterday drove around the streets of Kiev. He has threatened to call thousands of his supporters into Kiev's centre if he loses

Now he has taken to calling the opposition supporters "orange rats" while his wife, Lyudmilla, told an audience the Donetsk region that the hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters who demonstrated for weeks had become addicted to "narcotic-injected oranges" distributed to them by Mr Yushchenko's organisers.

Tonight audiences will witness the first real television debate when the two presidential candidates face each for 100 minutes on the main state television channel.

The only previous debate, a few days before last month's election, was a scripted affair - at the government's insistence - because Mr Yushchenko is regarded as more quick-witted than Mr Yanukovych. Both men spoke about set subjects with no surprises and no questioning of one another.

Tonight is likely to be a gloves-off clash and will be an eye-opener for many people. Both men are secretive about what subjects they plan to raise. However, many expect the topics of government corruption, cheating in the last election, and the confirmation that Mr Yushchenko was poisoned in September, to be debated.

Meanwhile, a new prosecutor general was appointed after opposition pressure forced the reopening of the investigation into the murder of an anti-government journalist, Heorhiy Gongadze, whose headless corpse was discovered in 2000.