Yushchenko told a crowd at Kiev’s Independence Square, ”Now, today, the Ukrainian people have won. I congratulate you.”
“We have been independent for 14 years but we were not free. Now we can say this is a thing of the past. Now we are facing an independent and free Ukraine,” he added.
As the official vote count gave Yushchenko a lead — 52.4 percent to 43.9 percent with 98.5 percent of precincts counted, his opponent Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich said he would appeal.
While there was a notable presence of observers, both campaigns still found fault with the election.
Yanukovich’s campaign said there was pro-Yushchenko campaign material near voting booths in western Ukraine.
Yushchenko’s camp, however, said that names of Ukrainians who died 15 years ago were on a voter list in Donetsk.
International observers, however, praised the vote.
“I am much happier to be in a position to announce that the Ukrainian elections have moved substantially closer to meet OSCE standards,” Bruce George, the head of an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitoring mission, told a news conference.
About 12,000 foreign election monitors turned out to observe Sunday’s election after accusations of fraud arose following the first two rounds of the presidential election.
“The people of this great country can be truly proud that yesterday they took a great step towards free and democratic elections,” George said, Bloomberg News reported.
The initial election in November was marred by widespread electoral irregularities that European and American observers said made that vote invalid. Even though election officials certified the current prime minister the winner, tens of thousands of Yushchenko supporters gathered in Kiev’s main square to protest the vote.
Yushchenko’s campaign also took the matter to court, pointing to regions of the country where the results appeared problematic or fraudulent.
The Ukrainian Supreme Court nullified the Nov. 21 election, saying rampant voter fraud in several parts of the country required Sunday’s re-vote.
What followed the court’s decision was a bruising and bitter campaign in which Yanukovich accused the opposition of trying to steal the election and Yushchenko became the odds-on favorite.
The heated rhetoric culminated in an angry debate Dec. 20 on national television.
Referring to the color that has come to symbolize Yushchenko’s campaign, Yanukovich denounced the “orange coup” and warn an opposition victory could lead to division and violence in the country.
“You think, Viktor Andreyevich, that you will win and become president of Ukraine. You are making a huge mistake. You will be president of part of Ukraine,” the prime minister said. “I am not struggling for power — I am struggling against bloodshed.”
Yushchenko gave no ground, blasting the government candidate for the scandal-laden election in which exit polls gave his opposition candidacy a double-digit victory, but the vote count gave the presidency to Yanukovich.
“You’re a religious person, right? Thou shalt not steal. … And then you stole 3 million votes. … Perhaps the Supreme Court is lying and you are telling the truth?” Yushchenko said.
Yanukovich did attempt to strike a conciliatory note, saying he regretted the vote fraud that had led to the election standoff.
“I want to apologize to all of you that there were some improprieties in this election campaign,” he said. “I want us to have no bad will after this election. I want our people to emerge from this renewed.”
But after the televised brawl, the prime minister returned to his hard-hitting campaign, accusing Yushchenko of being a puppet of the West.
“These orange people we have seen. They all take orders from abroad to sell our Ukrainian land for cash. Thank you for not being traitors of your country, you are true Ukrainians,” Yanukovich told several hundred supporters in central Ukraine.
“Our strength is not in might or money. Our strength lies in God and truth. Truth will win.”
Yushchenko, for his part, has focused on his message of reform, pledging to end government corruption, liberalize the economy, guarantee media freedom and secure an independent judiciary.
“Voters must choose between the road of poverty and corruption that we know so well and the road of truth, prosperity, justice. Taking that road will change our lives,” Yushchenko said on Wednesday.
One of the major foreign challenges the Yushchenko administration will face appeared to ease somewhat prior to the re-vote. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who openly campaigned for Yanukovich and accused the United States and others of interfering in the election, said he would be able to work with either candidate.
“We have worked with [Yushchenko] already and the cooperation was not bad,” Putin said Tuesday during a visit to Germany. “If he wins, I don’t see any problems.”
But one of the more bizarre aspects of the Ukrainian election drama continued to play out even after voters went to the polls. Doctors, having confirmed Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin, continue to try and trace the source.
Last week, Yushchenko told the Associated Press he had likely been poisoned during a Sept. 5 dinner with the head of the Ukrainian Security Service, Ihor Smeshko, and his deputy, Volodymyr Satsyuk.
“That was the only place where no one from my team was present and no precautions were taken concerning the food,” Yushchenko told the AP. “It was a project of political murder, prepared by the authorities.”
The speculation that the security service, which goes by the Ukrainian acronym SBU, was involved forced the agency to put out a statement saying it was not responsible.
“Due to media reports on the place and time of possible poisoning … the SBU press service considers it is necessary to state that the SBU had nothing to do with the deterioration of Viktor Andreyevich Yushchenko’s health,” it said in a statement on its Web site.
Doctors said Yushchenko, an economist who served as the central bank chairman from 1993 to 1999 before serving as prime minister for 15 months, would likely recover from the poisoning.