Thousands protest Ukraine reformer's loss
Voting called fraud; several cities reject the official results
KIEV -- Tens of thousands of demonstrators jammed downtown Kiev in freezing temperatures last night, denouncing Ukraine's presidential runoff election as fraudulent and chanting the name of their reformist candidate who authorities said was trailing in the vote count.
Viktor Yushchenko stood on a platform with campaign aides and flashed a ''V" for victory sign -- even though the Central Election Commission said earlier that with nearly all the votes counted, he was losing to Kremlin-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
''Yushchenko -- our president!" chanted the crowd, many of whom waved orange scarves -- his campaign color -- in Independence Square. Others had set up a tent camp along central Khreshchatyk Street, and organizers were inundated with piles of winter clothes donated for protesters expected to arrive from other cities.
The election commission's announcement galvanized widespread dismay and anger among the former Soviet republic's 48 million people. The capital's city council and several other municipal governments rejected the official results and a major chocolate factory closed plants in protest.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a statement to Yanukovych to congratulate him on the result, Russian news agencies reported, but a group of international observers described Sunday's balloting as severely flawed. Observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, said there were extensive indications of vote fraud, including people apparently voting multiple times and voters being forced to turn over absentee ballots to state employers.
In Washington, the State Department called on Ukraine's government to investigate the allegations of fraud or risk a changed relationship with the United States.
Echoing criticism by the European Union, the OSCE, Freedom House, and others, spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States was deeply concerned and called on Ukrainian authorities ''to act to ensure an outcome that reflects the will of the Ukrainian people."
The State Department is not calling for new elections and it is not too late to address concerns, but ''quick action on the part of the government of Ukraine is required," Ereli said
Otherwise, he said, ''we would consider the results tarnished and would have to consider what responses in the relationship would be appropriate."
Some demonstrators in Kiev waved large Georgian flags, echoing the mass protests a year ago that drove President Eduard Shevardnadze from office in that former Soviet republic after a fraudulent parliamentary election.
''We will not leave this place until we win," Yushchenko said. ''The people's will cannot be broken. People's votes cannot be stolen."
As protesters milled outside the capital's city council building, its members inside passed a resolution calling on the national parliament to not recognize the election results.
If the parliament doesn't take action to solve the crisis, ''we will have no choice but to block roads, airports, seize city halls," said Yuliya Tymoshenko, a Yushchenko ally who has been one of the most visible opposition figures.
By late yesterday, many protesters had dispersed but thousands remained in the square, shouting Yushchenko's name. The protest appeared peaceful but not euphoric.
''This is our unique chance to become better people, to preserve our dignity," said Oleh Krypko, 24, who came to the demonstration with his St. Bernard, whose leash was draped in orange cloth.
Four other sizable cities -- Lviv, Ternopil, Vinnytsia, and Ivano-Frankivsk -- announced they recognized Yushchenko as president, news agencies reported. Some 20,000 protesters rallied in Lviv, Yushchenko's western stronghold region.
The Roshen company, a major chocolate producer, announced it would close its factories for a week in protest, the Unian news agency said.
Senator Richard Lugar, the visiting chairman of the Senate's foreign relations committee, said outgoing President Leonid Kuchma ''has both the responsibility and the opportunity to review all of this and take decisive action in the best interests of the country."
European Union officials also urged Ukrainian authorities to ''urgently" review the results, saying the election had ''clearly fallen short" of international standards.
Yanukovych, in televised comments, called for national unity and criticized the call for public protests. ''This small group of radicals has taken upon itself the goal of splitting Ukraine," he said.
Although official results, with more than 99 percent of precincts counted, showed Yanukovych with 49.4 percent to 46.7 percent for Yushchenko, several exit polls had predicted Yushchenko would be the winner.