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Archive for Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Ukrainian candidates stage debate

December 21, 2004

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— Ukraine's rivals for the presidency jabbed fingers at one another and traded accusations in a heated televised debate Monday, as opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko charged his rival with stealing the November runoff election and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych urged the formation of a unity government.

With six days remaining before the Dec. 26 court-ordered rematch, the candidates engaged in several sharp exchanges but shook hands and traded smiles as the 100-minute event ended. Unlike U.S. presidential debates, the candidates stood face to face at lecterns several feet apart and questioned each other in a dramatic confrontation.

The Kremlin-backed prime minister, who is considered the underdog in the race, tried to appear more conciliatory, several times proposing a unity government. He also pledged he would not contest the official results and urged Yushchenko to do the same.

"If you win, I will recognize (your victory), if I win -- you will," Yanukovych said. "And then, you and I are working to form a normal government of national accord."

Yushchenko, wearing a tie and handkerchief in his orange campaign color, ignored the proposals, turning the discussion instead to fraud in the Nov. 21 vote that was later annulled by the Supreme Court.

"You're a religious person, right? Thou shalt not steal. ... And then you stole 3 million votes," Yushchenko said.

After the debate, Yushchenko's close adviser Oleh Rybachuk dismissed Yanukovych's unity government idea: "Yanukovych was trying to strike a deal ... he was begging."

Yanukovych, 54, had prepared for the debate by praying at Kiev's Orthodox Monastery of Caves on Sunday, while Yushchenko, 50, read books about economics and history, Ukraine's daily Segodnya reported.

Neither candidate mentioned the dioxin poisoning that disfigured Yushchenko's face, which was covered with heavy makeup. That marked a change from their first debate, on Nov. 15 before the initial runoff, when Yanukovych suggested that his opponent's then-mystery illness would make it impossible for him to carry out his duties as president.

The bitter campaign has split the country, with the election commission's decision to award the Nov. 21 runoff to Yanukovych triggering two weeks of massive street protests before the court's decision to strike down the results as fraudulent.

Ukraine's west and the cosmopolitan capital back the Western-leaning reformist Yushchenko, while several eastern regions supporting Yanukovych had threatened to hold referendums on greater autonomy from the central government.

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