A convoy of supporters of presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko ran into a roadblock of his rival's backers yesterday and failed to carry their campaign into this industrial...
DONETSK, Ukraine — A convoy of supporters of presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko ran into a roadblock of his rival’s backers yesterday and failed to carry their campaign into this industrial city, a center of opposition to Yushchenko.
With five days until Sunday’s court-ordered rerun of Yushchenko’s runoff election against Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the faceoff underscored the division in this former Soviet republic of 48 million people.
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But in a conciliatory gesture, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has strongly backed Yanukovych, said yesterday that he could work with an administration headed by Yushchenko, a former prime minister and head of the Central Bank.
“We have worked with him already and the cooperation was not bad,” Putin said during a visit to Germany. “If he wins, I don’t see any problems.”
Putin had irritated Western nations by quickly congratulating Yanukovych after he was declared the winner of last month’s presidential runoff, only to see his purported victory canceled because of vote-rigging.
Ukraine’s west and its tree-lined capital, Kiev, back Yushchenko, a reformer who wants to move closer to the West. Yanukovych has most of his support in the industrial east, where the mainly Russian-speaking population has close ties to Russia and fears being marginalized by the Ukrainian-speaking center and west.
The pro-Yushchenko convoy of 50 orange-draped cars — dubbed the “friendship journey” — was halted a little over a mile outside Donetsk by about 300 cars adorned with Yanukovych’s blue-and-white banners. As those blocking the road beeped their horns, the convoy retreated and headed to Kharkiv, an eastern city where support for Yushchenko is higher.
Carrying 185 people, mainly artists and musicians, the convoy is traveling around Ukraine, a nation the size of France, to rally support for Yushchenko and spread information about the mass protests that paralyzed Kiev for more than two weeks after the disputed Nov. 21 runoff.
The Supreme Court ruled that there was widespread fraud in that ballot and ordered a new vote, angering the prime minister’s supporters.
“Yanukovych is our president and we don’t need another,” said Kateryna Gula, wearing a Yanukovych flag as a skirt as she joined the roadblock yesterday.
“We can’t let the orange horde into Donetsk,” said another Yanukovych backer, Andriy Koloiko, referring to Yushchenko’s campaign color.
Olena Honchak-Kaskiv, who was traveling with the convoy, said the group was disappointed at being turned back. The convoy was accompanied by police vehicles, and city police had given it permission to enter Donetsk.
“We had one aim: to show that we are together and that we live in one country,” she said. “Donetsk demonstrated that it is not like the rest of Ukraine.”
Yanukovych’s posters are plastered all over the city of 1 million. Moreover, most Donetsk residents watch Russian television, which has favored Yanukovych and was highly critical of the “orange revolution” protests in Kiev.
Earlier, as many as 3,000 young Yanukovych supporters rallied outside Donetsk’s Palace of Youth, chanting: “We are for Yanukovych.” They burned an effigy of Yushchenko and his fiery ally Yuliya Tymoshenko.
Alluding to divisions intensified by the presidential campaign, Yanukovych pledged yesterday to protect Ukraine’s unity regardless of the election’s outcome and “irrespective of the position I occupy.”
“I do not intend to put up with attempts to divide Ukraine, to split Ukraine territorially, linguistically or religiously,” he said.
But he took a harder line while speaking to supporters in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk, warning that Sunday’s ballot might be declared invalid because of election-law changes that, he said, deprive voters of their rights, the Interfax news agency reported.
Yanukovych gave no specifics, but he complained earlier about the new restrictions on allowing voting at home. He called on lawmakers to support an effort by his Party of the Regions to amend the legislation passed by parliament Dec. 8.