KIEV, Ukraine – Russian President Vladimir Putin (search), who openly backed Viktor Yushchenko's (search) rival for president of the Ukraine (search), said in an abrupt reversal Tuesday that he could work with an administration headed by the pro-Western candidate.
"We have worked with him already and the cooperation was not bad," Putin said during a visit to Germany. "If he wins, I don't see any problems."
Yushchenko was prime minister from 1999 to 2001, and before that he headed the Central Bank for six years.
Putin irritated the West had quickly congratulating Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych (search), the Moscow-backed candidate, after last month's presidential runoff against Yushchenko, only to see his purported victory canceled because of vote-rigging. A new runoff will take place Sunday.
In eastern Ukraine, a pro-Yushchenko convoy of about 50 vehicles — dubbed the "friendship journey" — was turned back by supporters of Yanukovych after it reached the outskirts of Donetsk, a city that is the prime minister's base.
The presidential campaign has split Ukraine, with the west and Ukraine's cosmopolitan capital backing the reformist, Western-leaning Yushchenko, while the Kremlin-backed Yanukovych has received strong support from the industrial east, which favors closer ties with Russia.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who spoke with Putin at a news conference in the northern German town of Schleswig, said he and Putin agreed that "nobody has the right to meddle and that the result of the Dec. 26 vote will have to be respected."
Ukraine's Supreme Court ordered the revote after annulling the fraud-marred Nov. 21 runoff. Mass opposition protests in Kiev preceded the court's decision.
Yushchenko would like to nudge the country of 48 million people toward the European Union and NATO. Ukraine has a brigade of troops in Iraq, has lost nine soldiers killed in the conflict, and is one of the top recipients of U.S. aid.
Yanukovych on Tuesday pledged Tuesday to fight any attempt to split Ukraine, speaking a day after a bruising televised debate with his presidential rival where both candidates acknowledged the urgent need for unity in this divided nation.
"I do not intend to not put up with attempts to divide Ukraine, to split Ukraine territorially, linguistically or religiously," Yanukovych said at a meeting with foreign diplomats in the Ukrainian capital.
In the debate, Yushchenko accused his rival of stealing millions of votes in last month's runoff while Yanukovych warned that Yushchenko would never win over Ukraine's Russian-speaking east, and called on his opponent to work together to heal the wounds exposed by the bitter race.
Both candidates have moved to win support beyond their traditional bases, and Yushchenko convoy was an attempt to win over some of Yushchenko's toughest critics.
About 300 cars adorned with blue-and-white banners and flags — Yanukovych's campaign colors — waited for the convoy of Yushchenko supporters outside the Donetsk city limits. In the city, up to 3,000 youths rallied and chanted, "We are for Yanukovych." They burned an effigy of Yushchenko.
Earlier, Olga Khodovanets, a coordinator of the opposition convoy, said they had received permission from Donetsk officials to enter the city. There were fears of possible violence, but Mayor Aleksandr Lukyanchenko told the Interfax news agency that "police will be able to ensure order" and he said permission had been given for the group to hold a rally in Donetsk.
Yanukovych, meanwhile, has moved to distance himself from outgoing President Leonid Kuchma (search), while also reaching out to Yushchenko with conciliatory calls to form a unity government after the vote.
"We, regardless, will search for compromises and will find them," he said during the debate. "After the election, despite whoever wins, I think we should hold a forum of national accord."
Yanukovych also urged whoever loses Sunday's rerun to accept defeat.