As hard as it was for Viktor Yushchenko to win the presidency of Ukraine, it might look like a cakewalk compared with the high-wire act he now faces. Mr. Yushchenko, elected Sunday five weeks after the first vote was annulled because of fraud, takes charge of a country split east and west, and caught between Europe and the US on one side, Russia on the other.
With most of the votes counted Monday, the Central Election Commission announced that Yushchenko, the pro-Western opposition leader, was ahead with 52 percent of the vote. Barring any legal wrangling over the results, he is expected to be inaugurated by mid-January.
Still, some 44 percent of Ukrainians - mainly in the heavily Russified industrial east - threw their support behind Viktor Yanukovich, the handpicked choice of the outgoing president and the darling of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Addressing that divide, which raised the threat of separatism at the height of this month's crisis, will be a top priority for a Yushchenko presidency, experts say. "If the next president is willing to meet the expectations of people in the east, for fairer policies toward them, more efficient economic approaches, then there can be lots of common ground," says Oleksandr Sushko, an expert with the independent Center for Peace, Conversion, and Foreign Policy in Kiev.
Following exit polling that showed him winning decisively, Yushchenko partied with his supporters into the early morning Monday. "Today the Ukrainian people have won, I congratulate you," he told throngs of chanting, orange-flag-waving followers on Kiev's Maidan, or main square, early Monday. "Ukraine has been independent for 14 years, but we were not free. Now we can look ahead to a free and independent Ukraine."
More than 12,500 international observers were on hand to monitor the voting. By Monday most of those groups, including the powerful Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, had certified the election as consistent with world standards. Even the 900-member Russian delegation, which converged mainly on the pro-Yushchenko western Ukraine, agreed that Yushchenko's victory was fairly obtained, though Russian Central Elections chief Alexander Veshnyakov complained the elections were "not quite irreproachable."
Mr. Yanukovich refused to concede defeat and told reporters he would go to the Supreme Court to challenge the results.
For many Ukrainians, the struggle to elect Yushchenko was about much more than simply choosing a new leader. They see the peaceful 17-day "Orange Revolution," which saw millions take to the streets and the country's Supreme Court annul the results of fraudulent Nov. 21 balloting, as a kind of democratic debut for Ukraine upon the world stage. "We are on an incredibly steep learning curve of democracy here," says Vera Nanivska, director of the International Center for Policy Studies, an independent Kiev think tank. "Ukraine is a different place today. We have learned that if we want change, we have to make it ourselves. This is not a victory that will allow us to sit back and relax. We are on a new path."
The mood in Yanukovich's camp Monday, however, appeared sullen and defiant. Some said that the east's displeasure might result in a fresh push to wrest local autonomy from the new government in Kiev.
"People here are very depressed," says Sergei Kireyev, an official in Yanukovich's headquarters in the eastern region of Donetsk. "I think the elections were undemocratic. We will be launching legal appeals. And I am sure we will go on with our efforts to win [regional] autonomy. Not to separate from Ukraine, but to become more self-governing."
It is to people like Mr. Kireyev that Yushchenko appears ready to reach out. "Yushchenko's first domestic visit will be to eastern Ukraine," says Irina Gerashchen-ko, his press secretary. "There the local elite rule according to the feudal model, and the population believes the myth that Yushchenko can't speak Russian."
But she adds that Yushchenko's main thrust will be to prove to all Ukrainians that they can improve life by democratizing, strengthening the rule of law, and expanding civic freedoms. "The whole system of power has to be changed in order to fight corruption, censorship, and the shadow economy," she says. "Yushchenko's top priority will be the fight against corruption."
Much of the country's economy is controlled by a handful of powerful "oligarchs," most based in the eastern Ukraine, who conceal their business dealings and engage in untraceable barter arrangements with Russian counterparts across the border, political insiders say. "Yushchenko is going to confront the entrenched interests in the east," says Myron Wasylyk, an American-born expert who works with the Yushchenko campaign. "This can work and gain the support of most businesspeople. They all understand that to grow their businesses they need Western capital, transparency, and rule of law. So there's an incentive for them to cooperate in the anticorruption fight."
On foreign policy, Yushchenko might disappoint Washington by pulling Ukraine's 1,600 troops out of the Iraq coalition. "Yushchenko promised repeatedly to do this during the election campaign," says Mr. Sushko. "This will certainly be a sore point of negotiation with the US."
The message to Moscow, which strongly backed Yanukovich, is a much tougher one. Yushchenko's first foreign trip will be to Russia, where experts say he will promote trade and good relations but decline to join a Kremlin-sponsored common market. Russian economists have warned that the four-nation plan, which includes Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, will collapse without Ukraine, the former Soviet Union's agricultural breadbasket and industrial powerhouse.
Yushchenko will also seek to get Ukraine admitted to the Western military alliance NATO within six years, experts say. That will be a very bitter pill for Russia, which regards Ukraine as the heart of its sphere of influence, to swallow. "We have already left the former Soviet space in terms of political values, and we shall do so formally in the future," says Sushko. "People in Ukraine feel that they've set foot on the road to Europe, and it will be absolutely unacceptable to say that our fate depends in any way on what Russia thinks."