Spectre of Separtion Haunts a Nation Split by Election ; Demonstrators in the South and East Are Belatedly Declaring Their Contempt for the `American Puppet' Viktor Yushchenko, Saying They Would Rather Pursue Independence Than Accept Him as Their President

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THEIR VOICES have so far been fainter, their emotions less passionate and their leadership less inspirational, but supporters of Ukraine's pro- Moscow presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych hit back yesterday at opposition protesters who brought the country to the brink.

If the architects of the so-called "Orange Revolution" were becoming complacent they had a rude awakening from Ukraine's Russified industrialised east.

Gathering in the eastern city of SeveroDonetsk, leaders representing 17 of Ukraine's 25 regions made clear they would never accept the pro- Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko as president and warned they would rather break away from rump Ukraine if that happened.

Increasing the pressure on the man they believe is an American puppet brought in to take Ukraine out of Russia's sphere of influence and into the EU and Nato, they voted unanimously to hold a referendum in December "to determine the status" of the south-east of the country.

Such wording is thinly disguised code for independence and raises the spectre of Ukraine, already sharply divided along linguistic, historical, cultural and political lines, breaking in two. In the west and the capital Kiev, Ukrainian is the language of choice and people have a deeply rooted sense of Ukrainian nationalism.

They are keen to break away from their former imperial master, Russia, and to forge their own future without what they consider to be meddling from Moscow which regards Ukraine as its backyard. But in the east, Russian is spoken far more and people feel closer to Moscow than Kiev. They fear Mr Yushchenko will close the region's coal mines if he comes to power and they will be second-class citizens.

Many of the 3,500 delegates and the 5,000 protesters were furious. "If Yushchenko wins, I hope the Donbass region becomes part of Russia," said Milana Polovnikova, 20, from Donetsk. "Things were bad economically when Yush-chenko was prime minister [from 1999 to 2001] but they are now better with Yanukovych [the present Prime Minister]. People are working and getting paid on time."

In a sign that Russia, which openly favours Mr Yanukovych, is watching the situation closely Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov had a standing ovation for his partisan contribution. "On the one hand, we see the sabbath of witches who have been fattened up with oranges and who pretend they represent the whole of the nation," said the mayor, a close political confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin. …