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Monday, November 15, 1999 Published at 17:46 GMT

World: Europe

Cloud over Ukraine election

Voters backed Mr Kuchma most heavily in the west of the country

Voters in Ukraine have given President Leonid Kuchma a second term in office - decisively rejecting the prospect of closer ties with Moscow and a return to the Communist past.

With almost all the votes counted, President Kuchma had polled 56% against almost 38% for Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko, the Central Election Commission said.

International observers say there were serious irregularities, and voting was far from being free and fair.

But the monitors, from the European security organisation, the OSCE, did not say what affect the abuses had on the results.

The BBC's Stephen Dalziel in Kiev: President Kuchma will be fooling himself if he thinks the result reflects his popularity
In the first round two weeks ago, Mr Kuchma polled less than 40% in a field of 13 candidates.

On Sunday voters had a straight choice between the two frontrunners from the first round - Mr Kuchma and Mr Symonenko.

Mr Kuchma won a landslide victory in the Ukrainian nationalist regions in the west of the country - securing 92% of the vote in some districts.

But he lost out to Mr Symonenko in the economically depressed pro-Russian areas in the east.

[ image:  ]
Mr Symonenko had stressed the importance of links with Russia, while Mr Kuchma promised to continue market reforms and a pro-Western foreign policy, concentrating on closer ties with western Europe, the US and Nato.

In a parallel with the Russian presidential election of 1996, when an unpopular Boris Yeltsin won a second term by beating Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, people who were not natural supporters of Mr Kuchma voted for him to keep Mr Symonenko out of the presidency.

"I didn't vote for Kuchma, but against the Communists," said 25-year old student Yevgenia.

Rigging allegations

About 33,000 polling stations were open around the country for the vote, and turnout was reported to be 73.8% of the 37 million electorate, up from about 70% in the first round on 31 October.

[ image: A woman crosses herself, clutching a poster of Symonenko]
A woman crosses herself, clutching a poster of Symonenko
Mr Symonenko has conceded defeat, but he said there had been major campaign violations and vote-rigging by Kuchma's supporters.

"Everything that happened during the first and second round demonstrates that Ukraine has become a police state," Mr Symonenko told a news conference.

"All kinds of methods were used to confuse people."

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe noted that there had been very limited media access for opposition candidates during the campaign leading up to the first-round vote.

Economic tasks

[ image: The hryvnia gained compared to its pre-election value]
The hryvnia gained compared to its pre-election value
Ukraine's currency, the hryvnia, which had been under pressure due to fears of a Symonenko win, gained slightly to reach 4.96 to the dollar after the results were announced.

But with billions of dollars in wage and pension arrears owed to an angry populace and more than $3bn in foreign debt payments due next year, Mr Kuchma has little time to celebrate victory.

Foreign currency reserves represent just half of Ukraine's foreign debts and it has no access to international capital markets.

Despite the economic decline seen during his first term in office, many analysts say Mr Kuchma has no choice but to continue, however slowly, with vital reforms and privatisation of key enterprises.

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