Ukraine's "orange opposition" was gearing up to contest the result of a bitterly fought presidential election after officials announced Monday that establishment candidate Viktor Yanukovich had all but secured victory over his rival.
As international observers cast doubt over the validity of the results, protesters began pitching tents in central Kiev for what many feared could be a long standoff with authorities.
With more than 99 percent of the ballots counted, Mr. Yanukovich had 49.4 percent of the vote compared with 46.7 percent for the opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko.
The two men may have confusingly similar names, but their politics could not be more different.
Mr. Yushchenko, the first round winner by a fraction, sees Ukraine's future largely with the West, while Yanukovich would lead his country into Russia's embrace.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election failed to meet international standards.
"I can only express my disappointment at the way these elections were conducted, including media bias and the abuse of state resources," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said.
"It is now apparent that a concerted and forceful program of election-day fraud and abuse was enacted with either the leadership or cooperation of governmental authorities," said US Sen. Richard Lugar, who was sent to Kiev as President Bush's envoy.
Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with Moscow's Carnegie Center for International Peace, said he could not rule out the risk of violence at a local level although he hoped there would be no large-scale unrest.
Yushchenko, whose supporters have chosen the color orange for their campaign against the powers that be, complained of numerous violations of electoral procedure and "total falsification" in two regions, Donetsk and Lugansk.
"From all parts of Ukraine, on carts, cars, planes, and trains, tens of thousands of people are on their way here," he told the crowd on Kiev's Independence Square. "Our action is only just beginning."
Yushchenko urged his supporters to protest peacefully, and Ukraine has been less volatile than the Caucasus.
On election night, the square was awash with orange flags as opposition supporters listened to a rock concert before beginning their own parallel vote count. After they detected what they claimed was massive fraud, they called for strikes and a tent sit-in.
"Our victory will depend on the heroism of each individual, on how many people come to Kiev today and on how long they will have the courage to stay in the tents," said Yulia Tymoshenko, a Yushchenko ally. Protesters will also have to contend with cold temperatures, as a postelection frost suddenly ended a balmy autumn.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom critics accused of interfering in the election after he made two trips to Ukraine during the campaign, was away in Brazil Monday. Apparently fearing that its support of Yanukovich could backfire, Moscow was more circumspect in the second round.
But it will heartily welcome a Yanukovich win, if confirmed, because Russia needs Ukraine to implement its plan of creating a Eurasian economic space to match the European Union (EU) to the west.
Russia's liberals were looking to the Ukrainian opposition to show the Rus- sian masses that they, too, could have real races instead of President Putin's "managed democracy" and not necessarily follow the Kremlin's prompting during the next presidential election in 2008.
Even if Yushchenko concedes defeat, observers say, the mere fact that Russians have seen a full-blooded race, complete with a televised debate, taking place just over their border will give them food for thought. But if unrest breaks out in Ukraine, then Russians might conclude that democracy tends toward instability.
The Yanukovich vote was strongest in eastern Ukraine, while western parts strongly supported Yushchenko, reflecting the country's traditional geographical and historical split.
People in western regions trusted Yushchenko - an economist, former central banker, and former prime minister (from 1999-2001) - to bring them closer to the EU, which since its expansion earlier this year, now includes Poland and comes right up to Ukraine's border.
In the capital, Kiev, where most voters backed Yushchenko, car drivers blared their horns in a continuous wail of protest at the result.
Eastern voters, many of them ethnic Russians, say they feel ties to Russia, if not nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Oligarchs and their employees in the coal and steel areas said they were prepared to overlook Yanukovich's two convictions for theft and assault as a teenager and trust his record as prime minister.
He promised, if reelected, to make Russian a second official language and allow dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship.
Just before the vote, Yanukovich received a wheat sheaf, symbolic of Ukraine's important agriculture industry, from outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, who could not have made his blessing more obvious.
Throughout his rule, marred by crime and corruption, President Kuchma trod a fine line between the West and Russia.
Yushchenko promised to pursue a more consistent policy toward Europe while also developing civilized ties with Russia. He denied he was pro-Western, saying he was "a Ukrainian politician."
Ironically, Russian business might have benefited from a Yushchenko presidency. But Russia and Belarus wanted Ukraine in their orbit for geopolitical reasons.
• Material from wire services was used in this report.