KIEV -- Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition leader whose victory in Ukraine's presidential election was all but assured yesterday despite his opponent's threat to appeal the outcome, is expected to move quickly to bolster ties with the West while trying to ease tensions with Russia.
Yet there are questions about how fast he can open up to the European Union, NATO, and other Western structures, pursue plans for an ambitious economic overhaul, and tackle widespread corruption.
Six months of electoral wrangling have left the country bitterly divided between Ukraine's west and a Russian-speaking east, a region that backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in Sunday's vote and where many people are angry that his victory in a Nov. 21 ballot was overturned. In addition, Yushchenko heads a political coalition whose factions are not united in their goals.
With nearly all ballots counted from an election that saw a 77 percent turnout, Yushchenko had just over 52 percent of the votes and Yanukovych 44.2 percent.
Speaking at Kiev's Independence Square, where mammoth crowds gathered for weeks to protest fraud in last month's election, a jubilant Yushchenko told supporters: ''Thousands of people that were and are at the square were not only waiting for this victory but they were creating it."
Yanukovych refused to concede defeat, telling reporters he would go to the Supreme Court to challenge the results once the election commission released its final tally.
Later, however, he said he had lost respect for the court because of its ruling that annulled the results of the earlier election, which Yushchenko's camp, international observers, and even members of the Central Electoral Commission assailed as fraudulent.
The court's ruling ''breached the constitution and the law," Yanukovych said. ''Today, I can't have faith in such a chamber."
An international delegation of observers said that with Sunday's revote, Ukraine had made good progress toward meeting international standards for elections.
''It is our judgment that the people of this great country have made a great step forward to free and fair elections by electing their future president," said Bruce George, head of the delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and other election watchdogs.
Thousands of people celebrated in Independence Square last night, but their numbers were far smaller than the hundreds of thousands who jammed the plaza at the height of the protests last month. ''Today is a golden day," said Mykola Rak, a 62-year-old sporting an armband of orange, Yushchenko's campaign color.
European leaders congratulated Yushchenko on his victory, and Secretary of State Colin Powell of the United States called it a ''historic moment for democracy in Ukraine."
Powell also called on Russia to work with the Bush administration in helping this former Soviet republic. ''Let's all join together now and see what we can do," he said.
But there was no immediate comment on the election from the government of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, which backed Yanukovych. Last month, by contrast, Putin repeatedly congratulated Yanukovych on his purported victory, even before the announcement of the final results that were later annulled.
Despite his leanings toward the West, Yushchenko must pay heed to the Kremlin. He told journalists last week that ''I have no intention of creating new problems" with Russia. He said his first foreign trip as president would be to Moscow.
Russia is Ukraine's biggest trade partner and a major investor here, and it is extremely nervous about eastward-expanding European institutions such as the European Union and NATO. Eastern Ukraine, where just under half the country's 48 million people live, also is intent on keeping close ties with the former imperial and Soviet ruler.
Yushchenko faces a rocky road as he prepares to become president, both medically and politically.
He was poisoned with a nearly lethal amount of dioxin, an act he blamed on the government, and will need monthly blood tests to track how quickly the poison is leaving his body. Doctors have said they expect a gradual recovery, although they fear an increased long-term risk of a heart attack, cancer, or other chronic diseases.
The political team on which Yushchenko is relying to fulfill the dreams of millions of Ukrainians -- who have turned his very name into a mantra of hope -- is a cobbled-together coalition with widely varying ideas about how much power the presidency should have.
The coalition has cut its teeth in the rough-and-tumble Ukrainian parliament, where filibustering and dramatic walkouts regularly trump compromise.
One of Yushchenko's most stalwart allies, Yulia Tymoshenko, has said she wants to occupy the post of prime minister -- but many Ukrainians, especially in pro-Yanukovych strongholds, scorn her as a radical lawmaker who has pushed a radical political agenda.
The long campaign also has deepened the rift between Ukraine's Russian-speaking, heavily industrialized east and cosmopolitan Kiev and the west, where Ukrainian nationalism runs deep.
Yushchenko has said he hopes to heal the hostile feelings within two years.
He ''will have to be very attentive to this [eastern] region, to its problems . . . because right now, they believe he is ignoring them, that he is hostile toward them," said Darya Glushenko, a political analyst at the Kiev-based International Center for Policy Studies.
Yushchenko, a former
Yushchenko has said he might take another look at some privatizations of state enterprises, including the sale of the country's largest steel producer, Kryvorizhstal, this past summer to a company controlled by Viktor Pinchuk, son-in-law of Ukraine's outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma.
On a more mundane level but one essential to maintaining popularity, Yushchenko will have to tackle the government's $216 million budget deficit and inflation running at more than 10 percent a year. He has said he intends to boost employment with public works, improved conditions for small- and medium-sized businesses, and an attack on corruption.