Putin enters Ukrainian election row by attending army parade

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A Soviet-style military parade shut down the streets of Kiev yesterday as Ukraine entered the final stretch of a tense election campaign marred by allegations of dirty tricks and intimidation tactics.

A Soviet-style military parade shut down the streets of Kiev yesterday as Ukraine entered the final stretch of a tense election campaign marred by allegations of dirty tricks and intimidation tactics.

The West-leaning opposition has accused the government of flooding the capital with uniformed soldiers to scare off their support and to use force against planned mass demonstrations in the event of electoral fraud.

Watching the parade alongside the Prime Minister and presidential hopeful, Viktor Yanukovych, was Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader used the show of force as an occasion for some high-profile campaigning on behalf of the pro-Moscow candidate.

The parade itself - to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Ukraine's liberation from the Nazis - was brought forward by a week, without explanation, and overshadows the last 72 hours of the campaign.

Supporters of Viktor Yushchenko, leader of the pro-Western democratic coalition, say they have a real chance of winning and that has prompted the military presence. "On the day of voting there will be several tens of thousands of men in uniforms near Kiev," said Mr Yushchenko, "or has the government even forgotten the date on which Kiev was liberated?"

Mr Yushchenko is running neck and neck in the polls with Mr Yanukovych, the chosen successor of the incumbent, Leonid Kuchma, and the vote is seen as a watershed for Ukrainians. Most independent observers believe the opposition leader would win a fair election by a clear margin.

Observers say the result will determine whether Kiev charts a course towards democracy and the West or goes down the more authoritarian route of Russia and Belarus.

A bitter campaign has been fought against a backdrop of bomb explosions and opposition supporters being beaten and detained. The latest scandal has arisen after the opposition claimed that some of its members were attacked by police masquerading as skinheads at a rally. The assailants were found to have police identification cards and pistols.

Mr Yushchenko is the head of a liberal and centre-right coalition and is promising democratic reforms to fight endemic corruption. He also advocates EU and Nato membership.

Mr Yanukovych is the successor chosen by the outgoing President Kuchma who has been largely isolated internationally due to accusations of corruption, authoritarianism, and human-rights abuses. He is avowedly pro-Russian and supports Mr Putin's plan to create a Moscow-led economic zone comprising their two countries, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The opposition calls it a plan to recreate the USSR.

Mr Putin was at yesterday's rally on the last day of a three-day visit that outraged the opposition which said it was a flagrant attempt to boost the chances of Mr Yanukovych. Alongside the two leaders was Belarus's Stalinist President Alexander Lukashenka who bolstered his own powers a fortnight ago in sham elections.

On the first evening of his visit, Mr Putin appeared on three government-controlled television channels to praise Mr Yanukovych's economic policies. He also promised that Ukrainian citizens will be able to travel to Russia without passports - an electoral present that will win the approval of millions of ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

Forming a new economic bloc has become one of Moscow's top priorities, and Ukraine - bigger than France and with 50 million people - is vital to the plan.

Yurko Pavlenko, an opposition MP, said: "It's disgusting that the Ukrainian government, knowing its candidate will lose in any fair contest, needs to enlist the help of the Russian President."

Many ordinary people also disapproved. Oleksander, an office worker, was certain the visit was designed to influence the election: "It's dishonourable for Russia to intrude at this time. It reminds people of the times when Ukraine was a colony in Russia's empire."

The deputy president of the European Parliament, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, said: "The level of interference of some circles in Russia in the elections is something deplorable. It is not for other countries to indicate which candidate would be better."