Without providing evidence that Viktor Yushchenko won the election, newspapers and pundits in the US and Europe all but insist that the West's opposition candidate has been robbed of the presidency.

Although huge rallies in support of pro-Russian presidential candidate and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich barely make it to television screens, audiences around the Western world have probably all seen the laser-lit, plasma-screened Yushchenko rock concerts.

Speaking to Aljazeera.net on Tuesday, international relations expert Bulent Gokay, a senior researcher at Keele University in Britain, pointed out that a worryingly obvious fact is being overlooked.

"The two candidates, both Prime Minister Vickor Yanukovich and Yushchenko, have their roots in the same anti-democratic ruling elite which divided the wealth of the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union."

Geopolitics

Former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski noted in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard, that neither the West nor Russia can afford to lose Ukraine to its strategic and economic adversary.

So far from being a struggle between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism, the electoral battle being fought in Ukraine boils down to control of an important gas transit system next to strategic Caspian Sea oil and gas deposits, says Gokay.

Putin (R) has made no secret of his
desire for closer Ukraine relations

"On the one hand Putin's Russia wants to pull Ukraine into a closer sphere of influence ... through various political, economic and military agreements - most notably through the giant gas monopoly Gazprom and UES.

"At the same time, the US and Western Europe are increasingly pursuing aggressively militarised polices since the end of the Cold War.

"Ukraine is a member of the GUUAM - a loose Nato funded alliance essentially dominated by Anglo-American oil interests, ultimately aiming to exclude Russia from the Caspian Sea."

Such powerful interests have meant that Yushchenko has leapt from being a boring banker and opposition leader to a heroic leader of a democratic struggle.

No Angel

The late Kiev-based analyst Professor James Mace was also taken aback by the growing ferocity of media support for Yushchenko - mysteriously promoted in the West as the cure for autocracy in the former Soviet republic.

"I cannot say that Viktor Yushchenko is above reproach as a political mastermind. He has a tendency to do things off the cuff ... a reputation for inflexibility.

He is "not aware that compromise is sometimes the soul of governance. There are a number of people whom I know have either left his campaign or are in despair because of these things", Mace added. 

Yushchenko has already sworn
himself in as president

Moreover, while newspapers in the West report on Yanukovich's criminal record dating back to the 70s - none have reported on rumours that Yushchenko has a few much more recent skeletons in the closet.

Accused of stealing millions of dollars from the Central Bank, Yushchenko is alleged to have pressured the General Prosecutor to drop yet more charges against running-mate Yulia Tymoshenko for fraud and embezzlement.

Statistical truths

But if favourable coverage, pop music and young people demonstrating on your TV screens are not enough to convince a Western audience of Yushchenko's amiability, some contorted "election facts" may always prove useful.

The 96% turnout in the eastern Russian-speaking district of Donetsk, the home town of Yanukovich, is cited as a highly suspicious indicator of fraud, especially since - as has been reported repeatedly - his voters were "bussed in" to vote.

But equally enormous turnouts in areas which support Yushchenko have not received the same suspicion. 

And whereas Yanukovich's final official score was 54%, the Western-backed president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, officially polled 96.24% of the vote in his country in January.

But the same media organisations who now report critically on the Ukrainian election welcomed January's election results in Georgia, saying that it "brought the country closer to meeting international standards".

Double-edged accusations

Focusing on one of many "hypocritical" tendencies in Western media coverage, Gokay condemned the fuss made about Russian President Putin's "interference" in the election campaign.

"The two candidates ... have their roots in the same anti-democratic ruling elite which divided the wealth of the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union"

Bulent Gokay, senior researcher, Keele University, Britain

"Putin visited the country twice before the elections. There is nothing exceptional in this. Russia and the Ukraine have long-standing links and a large section of the Ukrainian population is Russian-speaking. 

"But the interference by the Western states is presented as normal and completely justified. 

"This is totally hypocritical, particularly at a time when the US-led section of the Western world is getting ready for a 'democratic election' of a puppet regime in Iraq with a massive terror campaign against the civilian population," Gokay added.

The real players

But whether you back current Prime Minister Yanukovich or former premier Yushchenko for president, the real winners in Ukraine will be the small number of powerful interest groups that continue to maintain their grip over the political landscape and the economy.

Yushchenko running-mate Tymoshenko, for instance, was regularly described as an oligarch until she threw her support behind Yushchenko.

Now Reuters news agency describes her as a "firebrand deputy" and makes no mention of her conviction for fraud.

However, there are many other local players vying for power who have thrown their lot in with either East or West.

"This whole conflict ... is very much like a Cold War-style proxy confrontation between the Western and Russian interests," says Gokay.

Yanukovich enjoys strong support
in Ukraine's eastern districts

"Behind the two camps of the presidential candidates lie the interests of the rival Ukrainian elite vision.

"Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, followed a middle way, close to Moscow but also sending troops to Iraq - but it no longer remains possible to walk that tight-rope."

And if sheer Western political pressure and favourable reporting on Yushchenko results in new elections and a new president, at least half of Ukraine's population are going to ask whether they should dispute the result with a similar media campaign in the Russian Federation.

Ukrainian businessman Oleksii Leschenko - who refused to vote for either candidate - told Aljazeera.net on Wednesday that if Yanukovich is a "pro-Russian agent, then Yushchenko is open to equally serious charges of being pro-American".

Interest and compromise

"After all, Yushchenko is married to Kateryna Chumachenko - a former official with the US State Department, who refuses to give up her US citizenship," said Leschenko.

"Both the US and the EU have openly supported and financed Yushchenko and have, as on so many other occasions, attempted to engineer favourable leaderships by promoting civil disobedience.

"And nearly everyone knows that the so-called "pro-democracy" group Pora was created and financed by Washington - just like other American political groups set up in Georgia and Serbia.

"But nobody wants our country to end up in a similar situation to those places, so maybe both candidates should step down," Leschenko added.

And according to Interfax on Tuesday, Yanukovich has come to the exact same conclusion.

The disputed election-winner said "we need to overcome the crisis and for the sake of this I propose that neither Viktor Yushchenko nor I participate in the [new] election if the result of the vote will be declared falsified".

Yushchenko is yet to respond to the suggestion, and in the meantime the possibility of a civil war or partition of the country along ethnic and religious lines becomes ever more likely.