Mon Jan 10, 2005 10:53 PM GMT
By Pavel Polityuk and Peter Graff
KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine has confirmed Western-oriented Viktor Yushchenko as winner of the presidential election, paving the way for an historic change of power that his opponent denounced as "a revolution".
"The Central Election Commission declares Viktor Yushchenko elected president of Ukraine," Commission chief Yaroslav Davydovych announced, just one hour before a midnight deadline for announcing the result within 15 days of the December 26 poll.
Yushchenko, a 50-year-old former central banker, won 51.99 percent of the vote against 44.20 percent for his Moscow-backed rival, former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.
Yanukovich's representative at the Commission immediately denounced the result.
"In adopting this resolution we are violating the law on presidential elections, the laws and constitution of Ukraine," Nestor Shufrich said. "The situation since November 25 has the character of a revolution, which makes it impossible to clearly determine the will of the people of Ukraine."
Despite acknowledging he had no hope of success, Yanukovich had held up the result for two weeks with challenges and court appeals, and Yanukovich's staff have said they may appeal against the result even now, noting that it does not formally take effect until it is published in an official newspaper.
In Washington, a State Department official said the United States would not formally congratulate Yushchenko until any last-ditch complaints by Yanukovich had been dealt with by the country's courts.
The result also puts pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin finally to congratulate Yushchenko after campaigning openly on behalf of Yanukovich and backing a fraudulent poll that Yanukovich won in November.
Hundreds of thousands of Yushchenko supporters turned out to protest against that election, which the Supreme Court annulled, paving the way for the December 26 vote that Yushchenko won.
Putin has so far said only that whoever is declared the winner should be "pragmatic".
Yushchenko's campaign chief Oleksander Zinchenko said plans were being drawn up for an inauguration, and invitations would be extended to leaders of the G8 group of industrial countries.
The decisive westward shift in orientation of a country of 50 million has unexpectedly reopened the question of whether organisations such as the EU and NATO should open their doors to former Soviet states once seen as firmly in Moscow's orbit.
The transition has not been pretty. In the two weeks since the election, one member of the outgoing cabinet was found dead in his sauna with a gunshot wound to the head. Kuchma sacked other officials and some are rumoured to have left the country.
Yanukovich resigned as prime minister on New Year's Eve after crowds blocked his attempts to attend cabinet meetings.
Before November's rigged election, Yushchenko was poisoned in what he says was a murder attempt by the authorities. His face, pock-marked and sallow from dioxin contamination, has been a symbol of his cause.
Yushchenko's supporters have spent the past two weeks celebrating his victory in the centre of the capital Kiev.
But the euphoria hides serious challenges for Yushchenko. Large parts of the mainly Russian-speaking east and south supported Yanukovich. They have backed away from threats to pursue autonomy, but remain hostile to Yushchenko.
Yushchenko's party controls just 100 of the 450 seats in parliament, and allied parties perhaps 100 more. He will have to form a coalition to confirm his choice of prime minister, and under new rules the prime minister, cabinet and parliament will take many powers his predecessor had as president.
He must also patch up relations with Moscow. Ukraine's Soviet-era industry overwhelmingly depends on imports of gas and oil, either from Russia or through Russian pipes, giving Moscow huge leverage over the economy.
Outgoing President Kuchma did spare his successor one difficult task on Monday: he ordered Ukraine's 1,600 troops home from Iraq in the first half of 2005, after a blast on Sunday which killed eight Ukrainian soldiers and one from Kazakhstan.
Both Yushchenko and Yanukovich had campaigned on pledges to bring the troops home.