Yanukovych claims election 'fair'

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Supporters of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych danced in the snow in Kiev yesterday, celebrating the victory of their candidate in the Ukrainian presidential election, as international monitors praised the vote as free and fair.

With only one per cent of the votes still to be counted, Mr Yanukovych led his bitter rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, by around three per cent. Ms Tymoshenko, who has alleged that the voting process was rife with fraud and manipulation, has not yet admitted defeat, and her supporters have claimed their candidate had edged the election in a parallel count.

However, the charismatic Prime Minister has not called for her supporters to take to the streets in protest, as she had threatened. Significantly, the international monitoring mission gave the green light to the election, calling it "professional, transparent and honest", a verdict which appears to give Ms Tymoshenko little leeway to cry foul.

Joao Soares, head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's observer mission, said the vote was a victory for the people of Ukraine.

"It is now time for the country's political leaders to listen to the people's verdict and make sure that the transition of power is peaceful and constructive," he said, in comments that piled pressure on Ms Tymoshenko not to challenge the outcome.

Mr Yanukovych will take power following five years in opposition, after his 2004 rigged election victory, supported by Russia, was overturned by the country's Supreme Court. He is expected to halt the push towards Europe that the outgoing president, Viktor Yushchenko, has attempted to implement, and will tilt Ukraine back towards Russia. But the narrow margin of his win will make it difficult for him to implement reforms.

The dire state of the country's economy may also require him to be as aggressive on gas negotiations with Moscow as his predecessor.

Mr Yanukovych's team was in festive mood yesterday, and called on Ms Tymoshenko to admit defeat gracefully and accept there was no chance of popular protests denying Mr Yanukovych the presidency this time round.