, the EU's High Representative of Foreign Affairs, has this afternoon commended Ukraine for holding free and fair presidential elections - a set of remarks that will make it harder for the losing side to contest the eventually pronounced result.
"The generally calm atmosphere in which the elections were conducted, the open campaign in the media and the fact that the electorate were provided with a genuine choice represent important achievements in Ukraine's democratic development,
" Lady Ashton said in a statement.
With just over 2% of votes still to be counted, Viktor Yanukovych
, the leader of the opposition and seen as the most pro-Moscow of the candidates, currently leads the polls with a 2.65% margin over his rival, Yulia Tymoshenko
, the current prime minister and one of the leaders of the pro-Western ‘Orange Revolution' in 2004.
In the run-up to the vote, Mrs Tymoshenko, far left, the once dubbed "Princess Leia of Ukrainian politics
" with her trademark peroxide-blonde hair traditionally braided over the top of her head
, had accused Mr Yanukovych, pictured on the right of the image left, of fraud and threatened to take court action or to call her supporters to come out on the streets.
She had reportedly been pondering her next move as the results emerged, postponing a pre-organised press conference, but Lady Ashton's statement will not help her case that the elections were carried out fraudulently.
She said that the elections were held in “generally calm conditions
” and that there had been an “open campaign in the media
”. The electorate had been provided with a genuine choice, she said, calling all these facts “important achievements in Ukraine's democratic development
Lady Ashton added that the EU “remains committed to deepening the relationship with Ukraine
", "supporting it in implementing its reform agenda
" and said the EU “looks forward to working with the new president
Her comments follow a resoundingly positive assessment of the conduct of the vote by a delegation of MEPs and by international monitors, the ODIHR
, earlier in the day.Paweł Kowal
(ECR, PL), the head of the Parliamentary delegation, said that “free elections were once again held in a country which overcame communism, got through the period of the Second World War and Soviet domination. It is worth bringing these facts to the attention of the international community which is watching Kiev today.
(EPP, SI) said: “we have visited 14 polling stations yesterday, urban and rural, and were impressed with the high level of attention to the rules and procedures. I think we can safely say that Ukraine has raised the level of electoral standards and can be a good example for many other countries.
But it should be noted that the result of the election is not yet official. In terms of protocol, Mr Yanukovych has to be officially named the winner by the country's Central Election Commission
(CEC), who under Ukrainian law have to announce a final result no later than 17 February.
Its decision can be challenged in court for a further five days after this, but unless judges overturn the result, Ukraine must inaugurate its new president by the 19th March.
If Mr Yanukovych secures victory, it will represent a moral defeat for the Orange Revolution
which swept him from power five years ago, and will most likely see a shift of national policy towards Russia rather than towards EU integration.