EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton has congratulated Ukraine on holding free and fair presidential elections, in remarks that will make it harder for the losing side to contest the result, according to EUOBSERVER.
"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," Ms Ashton said on Monday (8 February).
Her statement came at a sensitive time, as Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who lost Sunday`s poll by a narrow margin of around 3 percent, pondered her next move.
Ms Tymoshenko had in the run-up to the vote accused the winner, Viktor Yanukovych, of fraud and threatened to take court action or to call her supporters to come out on the streets.
She put off her hotly-anticipated press conference from Monday to Tuesday, however, while people close to her inner circle kept Ukraine guessing with contradictory statements to media.
One contact told EUobserver that her office is conducting a parallel vote count to establish if the official result is correct. A loyalist MP, Nikola Tomenko, told press she is getting ready to concede defeat, step down as prime minister and go into opposition. Political analyst and confidante Volodymyr Fesenko said she is keen to stay on as PM.
The Ashton statement follows 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.
"This has been a well-administered and truly competitive election offering voters a clear choice," the head of the ODIHR mission, veteran Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, who last year wrote a major EU report on the Russia-Georgia war, said.
"She [Ms Tymoshenko] has lost a key resource. She can`t rely on the opinion of external observers to back her side any more," an EU official told this website.
In terms of protocol, the formal telegrams of congratulations from EU leaders to Mr Yanukovych are unlikely to start floating in until he is officially named the winner by the Central Election Commission (CEC).
Under Ukrainian law, the CEC has 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 is to inaugurate its new president by 19 March.
If Mr Yanukovych secures victory, it will represent a moral defeat for the Orange Revolution which swept him from power five years ago.
But the EU and many Ukrainian voters are likely to be more interested in kitchen sink issues - how to stop the country`s economy from collapsing and how to pay for Russian gas - than in post-Soviet power games for the time being.