KIEV, Ukraine – Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko (search) declared victory Monday in Ukraine's fiercely contested presidential election, telling thousands of supporters they had taken their country to a new political era.
"We have been independent for 14 years but we were not free," Yushchenko told the festive crowd in Kiev's central Independence Square, the center of weeks of protests after the fraudulent and now-annulled Nov. 21 ballot in which Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych (search) had been declared the winner.
"Now we can say this is a thing of the past. Now we are facing an independent and free Ukraine."
Yushchenko spoke after three exit polls and partial results projected him winning easily in Sunday's Supreme Court-ordered rematch.
"Now, today, the Ukrainian people have won. I congratulate you," he said.
Earlier, Yushchenko told journalists and others crammed into his campaign headquarters that Ukraine had opened a new era, which would include neither current President Leonid Kuchma (search) nor Yanukovych, the prime minister and candidate hand-picked by Kuchma to be his successor.
With ballots from just over 50 percent of precincts counted, Yushchenko was leading by 56.34 percent to 39.85 percent, election officials said.
Earlier in the evening, a dejected-looking Yanukovych told reporters in Kiev "if there is a defeat, there will be a strong opposition." But he did not concede, saying "I am ready to lead the state," and hinted he would challenge the results in the courts.
"We will defend the rights of our voters by all legal means," he said, ruling out negotiations with Yushchenko were the opposition leader to win.
Some 12,000 foreign observers had watched Sunday's unprecedented third round to help prevent a repeat of the apparent widespread fraud on Nov. 21 that prompted the massive protests inside the nation and a volley of recriminations between Russia and the West.
Both campaigns complained of violations, but monitors said they'd seen far fewer problems.
"This is another country," said Stefan Mironjuk, a German election monitor observing the vote in the northern Sumy region. "The atmosphere of intimidation and fear during the first and second rounds was absent ... It was very, very calm."
Yushchenko echoed that sentiment in the speech at his campaign headquarters.
"Three or four months ago, few people knew where Ukraine was. Today almost the whole world starts its day thinking about what is happening in Ukraine," he said.
The vote count got under way after polls closed at 8 p.m., and the Central Election Commission estimated that turnout was around 75 percent.
"Today Ukraine will have a new president — Yushchenko. Everybody will feel the changes," Yulia Tymoshenko, a radical opposition leader and Yushchenko ally, told pro-opposition TV5.
Tymoshenko's calls for massive protests after the Nov. 21 runoff earned her the nickname "Goddess of the Revolution." She appeared to revel in her role Sunday, wearing an orange-and-black shirt with the word "Revolution" running the length of the sleeves.
With Yushchenko supporters clad in orange campaign colors, the peaceful protests became known as the "Orange Revolution."
The election outcome was momentous for Ukraine, a nation of 48 million people caught between the eastward-expanding European Union and NATO, and an increasingly assertive Russia, its former imperial and Soviet-era master.
Yushchenko, a former Central Bank chief and prime minister, vowed to take Ukraine closer to the West and advance economic and political reform. The Kremlin-backed Yanukovych emphasized tightening the Slavic country's ties with Russia as a means of maintaining stability.
Yushchenko promised to uproot the corruption that concentrated the former Soviet republic's wealth in the hands of about a dozen tycoons. Yanukovych promised to continue work to boost Ukraine's economy — which enjoys the fastest growth in Europe — and pledged an increase in wages and pensions.
Serhiy Shetchkov, a 53-year-old Kiev voter, said he opted for Yushchenko because "he is an economist and that's what the country needs right now."
"I'm interested in someone who can raise the standard of living, raise pensions, create more jobs," he said.
The political crisis had cast a harsh glare on the rift between Ukraine's Russian-speaking, heavily industrial east and cosmopolitan Kiev and the west, where Ukrainian nationalism runs deep. Yanukovych backers feared discrimination by the Ukrainian-speaking west, and some eastern regions briefly threatened to seek autonomy if Yushchenko won the presidency.
"I am voting for independence (of eastern Ukraine), an end to feeding those lazy westerners! My vote goes to Yanukovych," said Hrihoriy Reshetnyak, a 44-year-old miner in Donetsk.
Yushchenko, whose face remains badly scarred from dioxin poisoning he blamed on Ukrainian authorities, built on the momentum of round-the-clock protests that echoed the spirit of the anti-communist revolutions that swept other East European countries in 1989-90.
"Thousands of people that were and are at the square were not only waiting for this victory but they were creating it," Yushchenko said. "In some time, in a few years, they'll be able to utter these historic words: Yes, this is my Ukraine, and I am proud that I am from this country."
Kuchma, the outgoing president, said Sunday he hoped the results of the vote would not be disputed. "In my opinion, the one who loses should call and congratulate the winner ... and put an end to this prolonged election campaign."
Pollsters said they heard the same sentiment of fatigue from voters. Taras Korolyov, 28, brought his wife Lesya, 25, and three-year old daughter Olena to Independence Square after the polls closed Sunday night.
"We brought our daughter here to see the birth of freedom," Korolyov said as his daughter waved a tiny orange flag and chanted "Yu-shchen-ko, Yu-shchen-ko."
A World War II-vintage motorcycle draped in orange ribbons drove through the crowd, honking. "This bike saw the liberation of Kiev (from Nazi Germany), and now is seeing another liberation of Ukraine," said the biker, Oleksandr, who would only give his first name.