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Divisions run deep in the Ukraine

As tensions rise in Ukraine for the third straight day the divisions mirror the split in Ukrainian society – those leaning back towards mother Russia and those leaning towards the lure of Western Europe. NBC News Thomas Bonifield reports on the historical  split from Moscow.
Riot police officers guard the Ukrainian presidential administration building in Kiev on Wednesday with flowers inserted into police shields by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko's supporters. 
Riot police officers guard the Ukrainian presidential administration building in Kiev on Wednesday with flowers inserted into police shields by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko's supporters.  Ivan Sekretarev / AP
/ Source: NBC News

For the third consecutive day, tens of thousands of Ukrainians protested on Wednesday over what they see as a presidential election that was stolen from the pro-Western opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

There is growing concern about a possibly violent conflict as the supporters of the current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych — the Kremlin-backed leader who has already claimed victory in the disputed election — have, for the first time, started to take to the streets of Kiev as well, just a few hundred yards away from Yushchenko supporters.

As the government's election commission declared Yanukovych the winner, the opposition candidate rejected an offer from outgoing president Leonid Kuchma on Wednesday to bring him together with the prime minister for talks. 

The confrontation, in many ways, mirrors divisions in Ukrainian society which are deep and break along ethnic, geographic, and historical lines.

Ukraine – unique geographic position 
Sandwiched between four NATO nations to the west and its longtime former master Russia to the east, Ukraine and its people seem, just like the presidential candidates, to be heading in opposite directions.

The election results split the country along territorial lines, with the north and west largely supporting Yushchenko while the south and east backed Yanukovych.

Yanukovych draws his support primarily from the Russian-speaking, industrial parts of the country from which he hails. Russian is his mother tongue and critics say he speaks Ukrainian poorly. 

Not surprisingly, he believes stronger ties to Russia are critical for his country's future. And with an estimated 20 percent of Ukraine's population of 47 million made up of ethnic Russians, there is a natural draw toward Moscow.

Ties to Russia, pull to Europe
There are also long-running historical ties that bind Ukraine to its giant eastern neighbor.

Ukraine was first absorbed by Russia under the czars in the 18th century. It was to remain a part of the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union until 1991 when that Communist nation came unraveled. 

Though the two Slavic nations both became independent of one another at that point, their economies remain integrally linked.

Ukraine was the second-most important Soviet republic after Russia, but it is heavily dependent on Russia for energy imports, especially natural gas.

While the southern and eastern Ukraine are drawn to Russia, the west and north pull toward Europe, much like opposition candidate Yushchenko himself. 

Thus, it is in these parts of the country where he largely swept the vote. Unlike Yanukovych, he sees a need for his nation to gradually become more integrated with Europe and the West, not Russia.

Russia - not a disinterested observer
But Russia is not a disinterested observer. Russian President Vladimir Putin, virtually campaigned for Yanukovych, meeting with him several times in the run-up to the elections. 

He also put in a congratulatory call to him Monday night before the results were fully counted or the opposition had conceded.

According to the official Kremlin web site, Putin said, "the battle was hotly contested, but also open and fair, and the victory was convincing."

In fact, many in the West do not see eye-to-eye with the Russian president on that point. 

The U.S. State Department has expressed deep concerns over the fairness of the vote and warned of possible punitive action. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has echoed those sentiments saying, "There will be consequences if there is not a serious, objective review."

Real threat of violence
But with the number of demonstrators on the streets of Kiev growing every day, there are more immediate issues for Ukrainians to worry about than threats from foreign bureaucrats: like settling on a new president and making sure that decisions does not lead to violence in the streets.

At a meeting of the Ukrainian government on Wednesday, Yanukovych said, "There are no grounds for people coming out in the streets.”

He also said that authorities had no intention of being the first to use force, but they would maintain law and order, and added that the situation on the streets could lead to "unforeseen consequences."

That sentiment is shared by political analysts like Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center. 

"In a situation when there are hundreds of thousands of persons from different sides, nobody can guarantee that violence will not happen.

Petrov added that time was an important factor. "The longer this confrontation goes on, the higher the risk of violence," he said.