KIEV -- Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko praised thousands of his supporters last night, telling a roaring, orange-clad crowd that they changed the country without bloodshed -- but he also warned of trouble during this weekend's presidential runoff.
Yushchenko did not say who was plotting against Sunday's court-ordered vote, but told supporters at a rally in Kiev that he was "calling on your courage to defend the results of the election."
"The vote on Dec. 26 will not be an easy political walk," Yushchenko said in freezing temperatures on Independence Square to mark one month since the beginning of the "orange revolution" protests. "There are some forces preparing to disrupt, and they are preparing brigades, groups who are readying to come to Kiev."
"We will come on this square, this stage, after the vote on Dec. 26, and will stay until our victory is celebrated," he said.
The call echoed an appeal he made after the Nov. 21 runoff that his rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, won until the Supreme Court annulled the vote, citing fraud. It ordered a new vote for Sunday.
For nearly three weeks, Independence Square was the scene of protests that paralyzed the government in this former Soviet republic. Protesters set up a sprawling tent camp on the tree-lined main street, bringing central Kiev to a halt.
Fears of violence have been high ahead of the new balloting, with rumors swirling that pro-Yanukovych supporters are being given weapons and poised to head to Kiev after the vote. Yanukovych's campaign staff has repeatedly denied the allegations.
But Yanukovych has openly warned that even if Yushchenko wins the new runoff, he will never be considered president of all of Ukraine. The campaign has divided the country between the pro-Yanukovych's industrial, Russian-speaking east, and the west and center where Yushchenko draws his support.
Some eastern regions have raised the possibility of pursuing autonomy if Yushchenko wins, but most of those plans appear to have dissipated in recent weeks.
"I would suggest that there is no ground to relax given . . . the clear statements by some regional authorities which support Mr. Yanukovych," said Leonid Polyakov, a Kiev-based political analyst. "The issue of separatism, which potentially can include violence, could still remain on the agenda until the voting is finished."
As Yushchenko spoke, the crowd, wearing orange armbands and waving orange banners, chanted his name. A stage with orange Christmas trees in the square was lit up, and a rap song that became synonymous with the earlier protests again blasted from giant loudspeakers.
A 23-foot-high balloon resembling a giant orange was tethered to the ground on one side of the square.
Yushchenko, relying on the protests and the outcry over the fraudulent vote, has found himself facing a weakened and increasingly isolated opponent. Yanukovych has been abandoned by outgoing President Leonid Kuchma and even appears to be losing the support of the Kremlin.
Yushchenko told the crowd that they changed Ukraine "peacefully, beautifully, elegantly, and without any drops of blood."