November 25, 2004

Opposition Calls for Strike in Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine - Opposition leaders, backed by thousands of supporters who spent a fourth night outside in the bitter cold, kicked off a nationwide strike Thursday to protest the Ukrainian government's decision to name a Kremlin-backed candidate winner of presidential elections.

With the gulf deepening between the Western-leaning opposition and the government, a key European mediator - Lech Walesa, the founder of the Polish Solidarity movement - is expected in the capital to try to help pull this deeply divided nation of 48 million back from the brink of conflict.

Wednesday's call by reformist candidate Viktor Yushchenko and his allies for an "all-Ukrainian political strike" came after election officials declared Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych the winner of the bitterly disputed runoff that the United States and the European Union denounced as rigged.

The move risked provoking a crackdown by outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, who accused the opposition of trying to carry out "a coup d'etat."

A strike could also further divide the country: Yanukovych drew his support from the pro-Russian, heavily industrialized eastern half of the country, while Yushchenko's strength was in the west, a traditional center of Ukrainian nationalism.

To prevent the crisis from widening, Yanukovych said negotiations with Yushchenko's team would begin Thursday. The opposition has said, however, that it would talk only about a handover of power to Yushchenko, and would only negotiate with Kuchma.

The election officials' decision to declare Yanukovych the winner "puts Ukraine on the verge of civil conflict," Yushchenko told hundreds of thousands of his cheering supporters in central Kiev's Independence Square.

The commission said Yanukovych got 49.46 percent of the vote and Yushchenko 46.61 percent.

Thousands of the orange-clad supporters spent the night in the capital, staying in giant tent camps set up along Kiev's main street and near the presidential administration. As sun rose over the city, groups of opposition supporters huddled together, drinking hot tea and breaking into regular chants of "Yushchenko! Yushchenko!" as they stamped their feet, a bid to keep warm as the temperatures plunged well below freezing.

The police presence around the presidential administration building was reinforced Wednesday night, with about 40 buses disgorging well over 1,000 officers with helmets and shields who stood in phalanxes up to eight deep outside the building.

The election was denounced as fraudulent by Western observers, who cited voter intimidation, multiple voting and other irregularities.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday that the United States cannot accept the result.

"With this decision, they want to put us on our knees," the Western-leaning Yushchenko, who took a symbolic oath of office on Tuesday, told his supporters. They responded with chants of "Shame! Shame!" and "We will not give up."

Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz said the opposition was "organizing citizens, stopping lessons at schools and universities, stopping work at enterprises, stopping transport. ... and, thus, we'll force the authorities to think about what they are doing,"

Yuliya Tymoshenko, Yushchenko's key ally, said his followers would "surround all government buildings, block railways, airports and highways."

She also said the opposition would go to Ukraine's Supreme Court on Thursday to protest the alleged election fraud. The opposition also planned to file complaints in regional courts across Ukraine.

The election has led to an increasingly tense tug-of-war between the West and Moscow, which considers Ukraine part of its sphere of influence and a buffer between Russia and eastward-expanding NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has already congratulated Yanukovych on his victory, and the Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament denounced the Ukrainian opposition for its "illegal actions."

Powell, by contrast, challenged Ukrainian leaders "to decide whether they are on the side of democracy or not" and warned of "consequences for our relationship, for Ukraine's hopes for a Euro-Atlantic integration and for individuals responsible for perpetrating fraud."

Canada also said it did not accept the results, and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso warned of "consequences" for the European Union's political and trade relations with Ukraine. At risk might be around $1.31 billion the bloc has given or committed to Ukraine since 1991 in development and economic aid and possible visa bans.