KIEV, Ukraine — Tensions are rising in Ukraine ahead of Sunday’s presidential contest, with both candidates threatening to send thousands of supporters into the streets of the capital after the balloting.
Kiev authorities said today they have received a permit application from supporters of Russia-friendly opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych for a rally of up to 50,000 people the day after the vote.
Meanwhile, incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko instructed Interior Ministry troops to secure the Central Election Commission, which was surrounded by some 250 burly Yanukovych partisans who said they were there to protect the integrity of the election.
Yanukovych’s Kremlin-backed election as president five years ago was contested in the mass protests called the Orange Revolution, and his win was thrown out on grounds of fraud. He appears confident of victory and determined to protect it this time.
Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko accused Yanukovych Thursday of plotting to steal the vote and vowed to stage mass street protests in a replay of the 2004 Orange demonstrations.
The fiery and glamorous Tymoshenko helped lead the Orange revolt, which rallied hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians demanding economic and political reform.
Some analysts say she is trailing, and hopes a replay of 2004 will help her avoid defeat.
But it’s not clear whether Ukrainians, exhausted by years of political turmoil, will answer the call of their bitterly divided political leaders and take to the streets.
Yushchenko expressed dismay about the situation.
“With every passing day, the situation is becoming ever more intolerable. Unfortunately, we are moving away from European democratic norms,” Yushchenko said today in an unscheduled government meeting attended by top security officials.
It was not immediately clear if police would evict the demonstrators from the election commission.
“This is a defensive action. Our candidate, Viktor Fyodorovich Yanukovych, has clearly said that he will not allow his opponent to hijack these elections and we are here to carry out that promise,” said Sergei, 50, who refused to give his last name but described himself as the organizer of the encampment.
Earlier today, Ukraine’s acting interior minister, a Tymoshenko loyalist, said that about 2,000 former police and security guards have arrived in Kiev to serve as muscle for Yanukovych. Acting Minister Yury Lutsenko said the massing of so many security veterans raises concerns about election unrest.
Yanukovych’s spokesman declined to comment today on Lutsenko’s statement.
The campaigns of both candidates plan rallies this afternoon in two separate Kiev squares that are just one block apart. Both are expected to draw thousands of supporters, raising fears of clashes.
Each camp has accused the other of planning to steal the election.
On Wednesday, Yanukovych supporters helped pass amendments to the election law repealing a requirement that representatives of both candidates be present to supervise vote counts at polling stations.
Tymoshenko charged that Yanukovych will use the new law to eject her supporters from the polls, opening the door for ballot-box stuffing and fraudulent counts.
Yanukovych said that the changes in the law were needed to prevent Tymoshenko’s appointees from boycotting the count in Yanukovych’s strongholds and invalidating the affected ballots.
Yushchenko, who signed the law Thursday, said today it would prevent any attempted disruption. “I contend that this makes the electoral process more democratic,” he said.