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Update: Ukraine voters face landmark presidential vote

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Jan. 17, 2010, 7:12 p.m. |

A Ukrainian fills a ballot during the presidential elections at a polling station in the village of Vasylivka, 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, on Jan. 17.

Ukrainian voters, battered by the recession and disillusioned by unkept promises of reform, cast their first presidential ballots since the 2004 Orange Revolution Sunday, an election that could steer the country from its pro-Western course and strengthen ties with Russia. Voters trudged toward polling stations in light snow in the capital Kiev. At one polling station in the eastern city of Donetsk, officials encouraged voters with vodka, sausage and salo, or lard, a traditional Ukrainian hors d'oeuvre.

But reports of voting irregularities poured in from across the country and the Interior Ministry said it had received some 1,200 complaints detailing falsified voter registrations and illegal absentee voting.

All of the leading candidates accused each other Sunday of trying to rig the election, in which analysts have predicted up to 10 percent of the ballots could be fraudulent.

Opinion polls show former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych — a pro-Russian figure who was the target of the 2004 Orange-led mass protests — is leading, with the support of about a third of voters.

Polls suggest Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, an Orange leader who in the past year has reached out to the Kremlin, will finish second.

President Viktor Yushchenko, propelled to power by the 2004 protests, appears to be out of the running in the 18-candidate field, with approval ratings in the single digits.

While he has sought to build bridges with the West and to reduce Russia's influence in Ukraine, his promises of European integration and economic growth have gone unfulfilled. Many voters blame him for failing to fend off the global financial crisis, which has hit Ukraine harder than almost any other country in Europe.

"I have no doubt that Ukraine will again demonstrate that it is a European, democratic country with a free nation, free people and free choice," a grim Yushchenko said after voting in Kiev.

Exit polls are expected later Sunday and unofficial returns are expected to start coming in soon after voting ends at 8 p.m., but the Central Election Commission said it would take until Jan. 27 to tally all the votes and certify official results.

If, as expected, no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote Sunday, the race will be forced into a second-round runoff between the first- and second-place finishers.

Yanukovych has pledged to end Ukraine's efforts to join NATO and to elevate Russian to the status of a second official language after Ukrainian.

If he wins, relations with Western-allied Georgia are likely to worsen. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has thrown his support behind Tymoshenko and has sent hundreds of election observers to eastern Ukraine, Yanukovych's electoral base.

But Yanukovych has said he would seek Ukraine's integration in the European Union. And he has said he would postpone consideration of the future of Moscow's lease on its naval base in Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. The lease expires in 2017.

Tymoshenko also has said she would end Ukraine's NATO bid, and in the past year has worked closely with Moscow to avoid confrontations over Ukraine's chronically late payments for Russian-supplied natural gas.

That is a significant shift. In a 2007 article she described Russia as an neo-imperialist power determined to dominate its neighbors.

Many Ukrainian voters appeared to have low expectations of Sunday's vote, with some wondering whether the election can help the country recover.

"I think things will get even worse," said Tamara Alexandrova, a retired resident of Kiev. "I live near the presidential offices, and you see what happens there. Nobody cares about the people."

But Viktor Vityuk, a 30-something Kiev voter, expressed confidence that the election would help the country advance. "I think that the choice our nation makes will be the right one," he said.

Voters, analysts and candidates have all expressed fear that Sunday's vote will be marred by large-scale fraud. Allegations of ballot rigging in the 2004 election led to the Orange protests.

Tymoshenko's campaign accused Yanukovych Sunday of busing supporters from one polling station to another so they could cast numerous ballots, a method known as "carouseling". Yanukovych fired back with claims that Tymoshenko is abusing her control of the bureaucracy to skew the vote in her favor.

Regional officials in former Soviet states are routinely accused of meddling in elections on behalf of allies in the federal governments.

As part of an international effort to bolster confidence in the returns, foreign observers have fanned out across the country to monitor voting in this country of 46 million.
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