KIEV -- Ukraine's rivals for the presidency jabbed fingers at each other and traded accusations in a heated televised debate yesterday, as opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko accused his rival of stealing the November runoff election and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych urged the formation of a unity government.
With the court-ordered rematch scheduled for Sunday, the candidates engaged in several sharp exchanges but shook hands and traded smiles as the 100-minute event ended. Unlike US presidential debates, the candidates stood face to face at lecterns several feet apart and questioned each other in a dramatic confrontation.
The Kremlin-backed prime minister, who is considered the underdog in the race, tried to appear more conciliatory, several times proposing a unity government. He also pledged he would not contest the official results and urged Yushchenko to do the same.
"If you win, I will recognize [your victory], if I win -- you will," Yanukovych said. "And then, you and I are working to form a normal government of national accord."
Yushchenko ignored the proposals, turning the discussion instead to fraud in the Nov. 21 vote that was later annulled by the Supreme Court.
"You're a religious person, right? Thou shalt not steal. . . . And then you stole 3 million votes," Yushchenko said.
After the debate, Yushchenko's close adviser Oleh Rybachuk dismissed Yanukovych's unity government idea: "Yanukovych was trying to strike a deal . . . he was begging."
Yanukovych, 54, had prepared for the debate by praying at Kiev's Orthodox Monastery of Caves on Sunday, while Yushchenko, 50, read books about economics and history, Ukraine's daily Segodnya reported.
Neither candidate mentioned the dioxin poisoning that disfigured Yushchenko's face, which was covered with heavy makeup. In their first debate, on Nov. 15 before the initial runoff, Yanukovych suggested that his opponent's then-mystery illness would make it impossible for him to carry out his duties as president.
Yushchenko was more aggressive during the latest encounter, pointing his finger at his rival and clenching his fists. At times, he slashed his hand through the air and expressed incredulity.
Yanukovych appeared more defensive, standing up straight and occasionally shifting his weight.
He spoke in Russian in his introductory remarks, appealing to his core support base in Ukraine's Russian-speaking, industrial east.
"Your accusations toward me and toward my voters don't give us the chance to look into the future optimistically," Yanukovych said, wagging his finger at Yushchenko.
Yanukovych suggested a Yushchenko victory would endanger Ukrainian unity.
"If you win the vote you will be the president of only part of Ukraine," he told his rival. "I am not struggling for power -- I am struggling against bloodshed."
The bitter campaign has split the country, with the election commission's decision to award the Nov. 21 runoff to Yanukovych triggering two weeks of massive street protests before the court's decision to strike down the results as fraudulent.
Ukraine's west and the cosmopolitan capital back the Western-leaning reformist Yushchenko, while several eastern regions supporting Yanukovych had threatened to hold referendums on greater autonomy from the central government.
"We have to discuss how to unite Ukraine and not divide it," Yanukovych said.
Unlike their first debate, the rules allowed the two men to question each other directly after their opening statements. Yushchenko used his first question to quiz his opponent about what he described as Yanukovych's economic policy mistakes.
Yanukovych defended his record, recalling a recent one-time increase in pensions, and promised he would again raise benefits for retirees.
The opposition leader's questions focused on economic matters, pensions, the budget, and salaries. Yanukovych emphasized voting and changes in election law.
Ukrainians gathered to watch in cafes and bars in Kiev, but many lacked enthusiasm, saying the debates would ultimately mean little. "People have already decided," said Natalia Andriets, a lawyer.