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There's also the risk that a wayward Ukraine could damage relations between Moscow and the West. During the campaign, Russian President Vladimir Putin made no secret of which side he was on: he visited Ukraine twice to broadcast his support for Yanukovych. Political consultants and media specialists close to the Kremlin played a major role in shaping the strategy and message of the Yanukovych campaign, and according to specialists like the Carnegie Endowment's Anders Aslund, Russia pumped millions of dollars into his election bid. On Monday, Putin was the first world leader to congratulate the Prime Minister on his victory, a full two days before the Electoral Commission declared him President-elect.
Sources well briefed on Kremlin affairs tell TIME that as protests in Kiev gathered momentum, Putin urged discredited outgoing President Leonid Kuchma eager to secure a safe retirement amid charges of corruption and political violence to declare Yanukovych the winner. The sources say Putin made it clear that a Yushchenko victory would not be acceptable. If the Russian President sticks to that hard line, it could provoke serious trouble, not only abroad but also at home. "The Russians have raised the stakes," says Stephen Sestanovich of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. "They've made this a very emotional issue domestically, and there will be a lot of people on Putin's nationalist flank saying, 'Are you going to take this lying down?'"
Yanukovych, 54, has made no secret of his pro-Moscow leanings. Just as important, Ukraine's business and political elites have flourished in one of the world's most corrupt economies, and they trust that he won't rock the boat. If Yanukovych seems a throwback to the Soviet era, Yushchenko, 50, wants to bring Ukraine into the free-market age. In opposition, he turned Our Ukraine into a powerful bloc that's threatening to undo the current ruling clan's lock on power.
Almost before the final votes were tallied, international election monitors raised allegations of widespread fraud. According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which sent in observers to watch the balloting, there were "highly suspicious and unrealistic" turnouts in key Yanukovych areas. Monitors recorded acts of harassment, intimidation and multiple voting and noted that the list of the country's eligible voters mysteriously grew 5% on Election Day. The OSCE investigated and dismissed as groundless complaints of multiple voting and ballot fixing leveled against Yushchenko's campaign by Yanukovych officials. Senator Richard Lugar, who represented the U.S. at the vote, was scathing in his assessment: "A concerted and forceful program of Election Day fraud and abuse was enacted with either the leadership or cooperation of governmental authorities."